The bad economy of the last couple years, with the A/E/P professions being particularly hard-hit, has created a serious problem for many firms today— that being disillusioned workers.
It is not easy to pin down exactly who your disillusioned workers are. They show up for work every day and may even put on a good smile for you (the boss). They ostensibly do the job that they are assigned. Competence is not their problem.
So what is their problem?, you might ask.
Negativity is their problem. They are a cancer growing within. They are skeptical, critical, and sarcastic, and they undermine your abilities as a leader to really turn things around.
Just as is the case with modern-day terrorists, I think it helps to explore the cause of the disillusioned employee’s disillusionment.
They are disillusioned because what they counted on is not happening. They counted on continuous growth. They counted on raises and bigger bonuses each year. They counted on new opportunities to learn and do more. But today’s reality for many firms has meant contraction, fewer rewards, and stepping back often to less esoteric jobs just to stay employed and pay the bills.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it is incredibly naive to count on the company for any of these things. But I have perspective. I’ve lived through recessions of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Nothing goes up forever. And while some do a better job than others, no company is completely immune to the ups and downs.
Many employees today— in fact, the majority— don’t have that perspective.
Their views and expectations are unrealistic. But that doesn’t change the fact that if they are disillusioned, you have a problem.
To deal with the negativity of your disillusioned workers here are my suggestions:
Confront those with the bad attitudes. You have to be honest with these people, even if they have been long-term employees and friends. Tell them in no uncertain terms that you understand their discouragement but they have to get over it if they are going to remain on the team.
Make sure you are really doing everything you can to run your business responsibly. Are you honestly dealing with non-performing principals, clients who don’t pay their bills, and support group heads who have gotten stale and lazy? If not, you must, in order to maintain your end of the deal. Not everything is within your control, but some things are. Don’t forget that.
Reassign the disillusioned workers. Sometimes, a change of venue is all it takes to come up with a major attitude change. A new location, department, or role can be a career revitalizer for those who have the tendencies to become easily disillusioned. This may not be a PERMANENT solution to their problems— you may be forced to do it again at some point in the future.
Encourage an unpaid sabbatical or long vacation. This may give the employee some badly needed perspective that they lack at present— something to be thankful for.
If all else fails you can always move out the disillusioned worker for good. I hate to say it, but sometimes trying to reform one of these people is like trying to change the stripes on a zebra. Not easily accomplished! This is, of course, your last choice.
Originally published 1/18/2010