Exercise caution when criticizing

Dear Joan:
I and other co-workers in my department would really like to know your solution to the problem that is expressed below:

My concern is a general "critical" attitude problem that prevails in my department. The faultfinding that occurs among us at every level is all prevailing and causing a very stressful work environment.

Some examples of the petty faultfinding that continues to occur many times daily are:

1.      A slip of paper fell to the floor when two co-workers were talking. One of the supervisors passed by and commented: "pick up that piece of paper, are we littering today?"

2.      One of the supervisors forgets to put the Xerox copy counter back in its place and comments to those around: " I better put this back or I'll really be in trouble."

Is there anything that can be done to improve this most annoying problem. I find that a lot of the clerical employees have mentioned in passing that it pays not to stick one's neck out, not to express any new ideas, and not to try to learn anything new, because there will only be fault expressed anyway.

The low moral and low motivation caused by this constant pettiness is certainly undermining any initiative or productivity that did exist in our area.

It's difficult to determine from your examples whether these supervisors are condescending or trying to be amusing. At face value, it seems as if they are treating you as though you were insolent children who need to be kept in your place. If so, it's no wonder that you and your co-workers aren't amused.

If the problem is an attempt by the supervisors to say something "cute," it will be easier to fix. Unfortunately, that is probably not the case, judging from your co-workers' reluctance to express new ideas or learn new things. These workers probably demonstrate their resentment through sullen compliance, which will feed the vicious circle.

You may want to consider sticking your own neck out. Your co-workers may have turned to you as a natural leader who was willing to write this letter. It seems as if you are relatively new to the group and you may not be as battle-weary as some of those who have retreated. However, pursuing this matter could be risky. You need to find out more details about what happened to those who have tried to make changes in the past. Was their approach appropriate? Were people really criticized or is it possible the supervisor was trying to question the idea to see if it was thought out and workable? Or, were eager beavers with new ideas viewed as privates who dared to suggest ideas to the generals. Were they "punished" with more grunt work or lousy performance write-ups about their insubordinate attitudes? Before you act, weigh the risks.

If you do decide to do something, analyze your own relationship with your supervisor. If your performance is solid, you're in a better position to act. Anything you do could become an issue between the two of you and it's smart to decide in advance if your relationship can tolerate the heat.

One approach is to respond directly to any supervisor who makes a remark that is inappropriate. You might simply say in a calm, even tone, "I don't understand. What do you mean?" This adult question might stop the "cute" attacker dead in his tracks. You might try other versions of this theme by pretending to take their remarks literally and following up to find out if there is a veiled problem behind the remark. For instance, in the copying example you might say, quite seriously, "Have you had a problem with that?"

Another approach is to talk to your supervisor about inappropriate comments that he or other supervisors make to you. By concentrating on your own personal situation, you don't become the rabble-rousing spokesperson leading the troops to revolt. If you do confront your boss, stay calm and non-judgmental. Describe the specific behavior you disliked and how it made you feel. Don't pull out everyone else's complaints or a long list of personal injustices, simply state a few examples that clearly illustrate the point you want to make. Explain that you want to know if there is something behind the remark and that you would value more open, direct dialogue if there is a deeper problem. This will give you a valid reason for bringing it up and makes you look like a professional-not a troublemaker.

If that approach doesn't appeal to you, consider going to someone else whom you trust and who is in a position to act. Often, the Human Resources Department provides counseling and intervention when conflicts arise. If you are the only complainer, however, you may see no action, or worse, be seen as the problem.

Like a troubled family in need of outside counseling, your department may need a skilled facilitator who can help both sides see the other's view of the problem. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get this to happen unless the situation is near crisis level or someone at the top initiates it.

I hope the supervisors have the wisdom to see the problem and what it is costing them. Perhaps if all of you talk to your own supervisors the problem will finally be forced into the open and this cycle of destructive behavior will finally end.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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