The healthiest cultures give a voice to people of all levels within an organization. People who feel that their voice matters are more engaged and more productive. There is mounting evidence to support this approach and companies by the hundreds are working diligently to make this model of listening an integral part of their operational strategy. I completely support this dynamic shift in corporate culture…BUT

duct tapeThere is a small group of people who simply don’t want to “play ball” with the rest of the group. They constantly find reasons to dislike anything that is being done. They aren’t simply seeing things differently, there is an abnormal attachment to playing devil’s advocate because they find it cute, think it makes them look more intelligent, or are simply miserable people who aren’t happy until they make others feel as bad.

I know that doesn’t sound like the most positive message of puppies and rainbows, but life is messy and business can be as well. If you don’t know how to deal with this group, you will spend more energy in verbal jousts than doing anything else…and that is bad for business, your culture AND your bottom line. Trying to silence the deafening minority, without stifling the input of the majority is a tricky endeavor indeed. Successful companies must find a way to do it in a way that matches who they are, or want to be, as an organization while still being encouraging to others.

Here are a few tips to help find the gold by silencing this crowd through some metaphorical duct tape.

  • Give them the reins – Ok, not completely. There are some people who just want to go on barking as if they’re the big dog, but when the rubber hits the road they clam up and don’t want to do the added effort. Whatever suggestion they have, as long as it isn’t illegal or unethical, ask them to prove it right and give them some latitude to do so. Also make sure they don’t get to dodge any of their current responsibilities. If you know your people, you will know with whom you can use this approach. Falling on their face may just provide enough humility to quiet the diatribe.
  • Connect it with culture – Find the very thing their suggestions conflict with in the culture and then ask them how their suggestion aligns with the organizational culture in that area. Sometimes this can be used as an effective coaching tool to help educate people who simply can’t see the connection.
  • Ask for a consensus – If you, and nearly everyone else on the team, realizes the suggestion is just divisive for whatever reason, ask them to get a consensus from their colleagues and if they do then you will consider it. If not, then they have to drop it. This option should be used from an informed standpoint. Make sure you know, not think, that their colleagues simply do not share this idea. If they do, you may need to reconsider the issue. It’s still is about listening to your team.
  • Invite them to leave – If someone is consistently displeased with how things are going and seem to always want things another way, then it would seem they are not a good fit for the organization and/or culture. The most kind thing you can do is to give them the freedom to find a culture in which their perspective and ideas are embraced with more excitement. Leadership is still about developing people. Sometimes that development comes in the form of letting them move on to different pastures.

All of these things should be done in private and in a respectful way that honors the individual, no matter how irritated you have become by these things. As much as we would like to have a harmonious atmosphere naturally, sometimes mother nature needs a bit of help. What are your thoughts?

  • William – great insight on a fact of all organizations !! It’s nice to have some advice and a viewpoint on how to address the people who “have to have” a voice.

    Too often we ignore them, or keep silent ouselves and get frustrated outside of them. This isn’t healthy. Love your ideas and plan to use them !!

  • Ignoring them is probably the most common way of trying to deal with them. They’re typically treated like the drunk uncle at Christmas and just glossed over. Toxic for your culture. Glad you found value it the post Steve!

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  • Hi William

    You’ve rightly pointed to a common dilemma in culture chance and team development efforts. I’ve been there, and almost nothing seems to work in terms of finding a constructive re-channeling, especially when one of the symptoms is that anyone in a formal leadership role is deeply suspected. The problem can be especially acute in large governmental organizations where termination may be particularly challenging and the threat of legal/procedural/labor complaints and even personal lawsuits seems can be a constant.

    As a consultant, I’ve encouraged formal leaders facing this kind of dilemma to make themselves vulnerable, to ask for feedback and to actually welcome criticism and voiced cynicism as a way to get whatever is genuinely undiscussable on the table — all of it, including fears of retribution, old wounds and any other “dark stuff” that keeps things stuck. This is tough work and sometimes is scary to both the leaders and to those who are negative and suspicious, but it offers a road directly to the real stuckpoints (and then breakthroughs) that can be most helpful. It also gives the majority a chance to step up their courage a bit and begin to contribute their feelings more directly about the problems in systems and relationships they see as hampering them.

    As part of this work, what often comes forward is each person’s need for a voice AND for feedback, and the need for each person to exercise positive personal leadership on behalf of what the group and organization are trying to accomplish. This can begin to break down the inevitable “us vs. them” perspectives that have inhabited the group or organization.

    I’m not saying any of that is easy work or I have all the tools I need. It’s very much climbing a sand dune, but this approach may offer a positive path, however slow the actual progress may be.

    Thank you for opening up this area which gets altogether too little discussion because it does not have easy solutions.

    All the best

  • Very lucid points, Dan. I couldn’t agree with you more. The premise of this post was that all of these things have been attempted and leadership is dealing with that exception we have all had the pleasure of experiencing. Thanks for adding such value to this conversation! This is a tough issue with less than perfect solutions.

  • Another great post, William and this points to one of the biggest issues in any relationship. Most people don’t like having the conversation and the bullies in the room find success in their tactics. We need to help leaders with the skills necessary to deal with these situations and have these difficult conversations. One loudmouth can stifle creativity and absolutely affect the bottom line. Sometimes people can turn around, sometimes we need to free up their future.

  • I have found many leaders have such an emotional reaction to this behavior that they don’t act for fear of losing a bit of decorum and tarnishing their rep. When the perspective becomes values alignment, the conversation feels less punitive. Thanks for your contribution and feedback Kneale!

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  • Gina Johnson

    I have question what if u work for a very well known company and there have been problems within the company in one of there depts.and VIPand CEO of this company know the problem and wont fix the issue because it is another VIP that is bully and they can’t keep people and this has been going on for very long time.The so called HR Dept…doesn’t’ help because that don’t hold anything confidential & they tell VIP your problem with dept and then u are marked the black sheep and they make itthe work environment so unbearable hping that you will just walk out. What would u do???

  • Sorry to hear about such a difficult environment. Based solely on what you described, and assuming it is all accurate, you have two options. You either tough it out and hope the VP leaves, or you can leave. Unfortunately, with leadership not having much of an appetite to address the issues the problem isn’t going to get better by itself. Best of luck to you!