RSS icon

Top Stories


IDear Workforce-I How Do I Manage Employees Used to Being Coddled

Work on dealing with loss and change; comparing and contrasting leadership styles and systems; and ongoing discipline, motivation and team building.
September 27, 2000
Related Topics: Health and Wellness, Dear Workforce


Imanage a drop-in center for people with mental illness. All staff members arealso diagnosed with a mental illness. This often requires "out of thebox" management and staff training, not to mention patience andunderstanding that are often absent in typical businesses.

Myquestion is how to manage the staff gently and in an understanding way whilealso not letting them use their mental illness status as a way to be lazy. Most of the staff are simply not performing up to their own potential buthave been coddled for so many years (because they are sick) that they simplydon't know how to work in a now full-fledged business. I would like to remainunderstanding to their problems but I have a business to run. Where do we draw the line between "Wicked Witch of the West"and "manager who needs to run a business"?

--Pam,mental health services coordinator, San Rafael, California


A Dear Pam:

Here'san answer from Mark Gorkin, the "Stress Doc" from Washington, D.C.

Actually, I've workedwith a number of organizations -- from private for-profit to nonprofit -- withnumbers of employees not performing to their potential (most withoutdisabilities). 

And this can beespecially problematic when employees feel subject to a significant and scaryreorganization or to substantial changes in operating philosophy, policiesand/or procedures. (I call it "frightsizing.") 

So while added patienceand understanding with staff and consumers is, I'm sure, necessary, let's focus on three key interventions for individual attitudes andproductivity along with organizational focus and support:

·   Dealing with loss and change

·   Comparing and contrastingleadership styles and systems

·   Ongoing discipline, motivationand team building efforts.

1.Dealing with Loss and Change.Sounds like the organization has gone through some privatization or, you haverecently assumed a new or strengthened leadership position and want to confrontboth the interconnected performance and bottom-line problems. 

Either way, in responseto shifting the work culture employees will need to vent their fears andfrustrations openly and formally. This is vital for short-circuiting the actingout covertly and passive-aggressively of these rational and irrational feelings. 

I have designed anumber of exercises that enable work groups to discuss and draw out anxietiesand anger in a creative and safe group problem-solving forum that focusesdirectly on everyday sources of work stress and conflict. (Being a professionalcounselor or caregiver is demanding in any circumstance.) Let me know if I can send you more information.

Playfully andcreatively blowing off steam, finding you are not alone with your concerns,others have similar stressors, etc., sets the stage for more focused andeffective problem-solving of the issues.

2.Compare and Contrast Leadership Styles/Systems. After the venting exercise, have staff address what they view as the prosand cons of the past (laissez-faire, to be charitable) management system andstructure compared to your more "business-oriented" approach. Some folks may need to grieve the loss of the old, comfortable regime.

For folks uncomfortablewith change or who have problems with feeling out of control, fearful of beingseen as incompetent or seen as a "slow learner" the value of grieving-- getting out the fear, feelings of betrayal, sadness and loss, anger, evenrage -- is critical.

While numbers of folksmay extol the old system, in this open atmosphere, I bet some folks (maybe witha little encouragement) will acknowledge some of the former deficiencies -- laxstandards, diminished sense of individual productivity, less cohesiveness andimpaired team problem solving.

Now have the staffcritique your business model: it's strengths and flaws as well as the staff'sanxieties about being more accountable for performance. Again, I believe folkswill acknowledge the value of your wanting to help staff have a greater sense ofautonomy and authority and at the same time have them be accountable forrealistically high "professional" standards. 

This is how one buildsa sense of accomplishment and pride in work and self. And, of course "TheTriple 'A' of Professional Responsibility" (last paragraph) is a modelwhich staff can carryover to their work with agency clients.

So brainstorming waysof building in authority, autonomy and accountability into everyday operationsis a key task for the close of a workshop or retreat.

3.Discipline, motivation and team building. Consider these three interventions:

·   Managingthe Disruptive Employee. Sometimes an individual is not just able to adapt to neededorganizational change without support beyond supervisory coaching. Also, if an employee is truly a "stress carrier" for the otherstaff then he or she must be counseled one-on-one (often by an outside mentalhealth professional). 

The person may have to be placed on probation or disciplined if disruptivebehavior persists. Decisive     intervention is critical if other staff members are to feel that their workenvironment is nontoxic and if they are to respect and trust your leadershiprole. Relying on solid management practices by rewarding productive behavior andconstructively confronting dysfunctional behavior does not make you "thewicked witch of the west."

·   OrganizationalIRAs. Building in "Incentives, Rewards & Recognition and AdvancementOpportunities" will help encourage and promote desired behaviors.

Incentives and Rewardsaren't limited to the monetary realm. Allowing folks to cross train or to tryout or discover new approaches in the work setting not only expands knowledgeand skills but can enhance intrinsic motivation and ownership. 

·   OngoingEmployee Participation and Team Building.Follow the organizational retreat with team meetings that aren't just time andtask driven. Designate a portion of the meeting (I call it the "wavelengthsection") where people can "check in" in a personal yetprofessional way with each other to discuss how they are working together as ateam, if there are any bumps between members or with other organizational unitsor departments, etc.

Also, allow staff members to facilitate the meetings on a rotating basis;supervisory or management personnel may be observers or participate in the teammember role as much as possible. Taking on this authority-facilitator role willenhance responsibilities, will empower staff and increase group buy-in with thedecision-making process.


Help staff grapplewith: 1) loss and change issues, 2) grieving, venting and brainstorming aroundphilosophical and operational shifts and 3) and implementing the threeinterventions, Some changes can be quickly implemented, others will occur overtime. Through consensus you will assist both individual employees to step up tothe responsibility plate and will help strengthen team effectiveness and morale. 

Of course, sometimes anongoing motivation/team building process can be more effectively and smoothly orchestrated with the assistance of a knowledgeablespecialist.


SOURCE:Mark Gorkin, syndicated columnist and speaker/training consultant specializingin stress, anger management, reorganizational change, team building (and humor) or 202-232-8662. 

E-mailyour Dear Workforce questions toOnline Editor Todd Raphael at,along with your name, title, organization and location. Unless you stateotherwise, your identifying information  maybe used on and in Workforcemagazine. We can't guarantee we'll be able to answer every question.


 The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

If you have any questions or concerns about, please email or call 312-676-9900.

The Workforce fax number is 312-676-9901.

Sign up for Dear Workforce e-newsletters!

Comments powered by Disqus