Clear priorities and honesty might win over cynical employees

Dear Joan:
I am a registered nurse and new to the small town in which I work. I work in a long-term care facility. My last place of employment was wonderful. My co-workers were fantastic. I am in Administration now, and I am having a real hard time establishing a relationship with the employees on the units.

Their negativity toward Administration is like nothing I have ever seen. I spent time with them talking about issues, I have tried boosting their spirits and giving little gifts for their hard work such as popcorn and candy canes for Christmas for each unit.

At first, I thought the negativism might be because they did not feel appreciated, or perhaps because they were not trusting of Administration in general. I am a very easy going individual and understand their concerns, but how can I get them to trust and respect me?

Do you think it will just take time? I want a working relationship with them, but I also need to keep some boundaries. I may be Administration, but I am willing to work on this and listen to their concerns. I think with everyone’s input we can have a wonderful facility. Do you have any suggestions?

There are countless people reading this who wish they had an administrator like you. Unfortunately, it sounds as if your new employees have a lot of old baggage that is getting in your way. I’m afraid it’s going to take a lot more than compliments and candy to change their perspective.

I sometimes run across cases similar to yours and they tend to follow certain patterns. See if any of these sound familiar.

§      Top management has changed frequently and with each new face comes a new agenda. These bungee cord managers come in, make a lot of noise and then leave. Their employees get worn out from the program du jour. They tend to keep their heads down and do their jobs, without a lot enthusiasm for anything new.

§      Abusive or callous manager(s) have ignored employees’ concerns, blown off their ideas or shown little respect for employees as human beings. Managers like this are more common than anyone would like to admit. In fact, a manager recently told me, "Dilbert isn’t a cartoon…it’s a documentary."

§      Technical professionals who find that they have become "accidental leaders" are often ill equipped to handle the needs of today’s employees. They often micro-manage or fail to manage at all. Some make promises they can’t keep or give lip service to problems that need solutions.

§      I have also seen cases of a few negative employees who love to stir the pot. Sometimes their poor attitudes are the result of lousy managers but some bring their overdrawn emotional account with them.

In your case, the group seems hardened and cynical and it will take a lot of energy on your part to change things. The only strategy that has a chance of working is one of clear priorities, openness and honesty, employee participation and recognition. It must be done consistently and with an even temperament. At times you will feel like a punching bag and will undoubtedly take their jabs personally, even though you shouldn’t.

Make it clear from the beginning that you have high performance expectations and that you expect each person to take personal responsibility for their own actions. Explain that you intend to work through each of their issues but that you can’t do it without their help. You are right to realize that you need boundaries. Chasing them or babying them will only make it worse because they won’t respect you. If you need a mantra, make it "Tough Love."

With the team, create a type of "contract" that will outline what you expect of them and what they expect of you. These ground rules might include, treating each person with respect, helping each other out, sharing information, no complaints without a possible solution, etc. Make sure each person speaks up and verbalizes their agreement. Without a consensus, it won’t hold up.

Whatever happens, keep your side of the contract and hold people accountable for keeping up their end. Hold regular meetings and keep asking for input. Eventually you will get it. Notice little things they are doing well. Kill them with kindness. Pitch in to help. Listen hard. Be their advocate with upper management and be an honest voice—share the good news along with the bad.

Trust has to be earned. Give people time and eventually a few will start to fall off the fence and come your way. In the end, a few may decide they’d rather be bitter, and you may end up inviting them to leave and find a workplace that deserves their disdain.

If top management is the overall problem and you discover that management above you is eroding everything you are trying to put in place, there is little you can do to dislodge the cynicism. Whether you stay or leave, look at this as your MBF (MBA by Fire). You will have earned your leadership stripes and will learn some indelible lessons about trust and motivation that will be useful for the rest of your career.

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,, or 
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