Constant Criticism and Anger at Work

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an employee who criticizes how things are done:
I have an employee at work who is constantly criticizing how things are done. She is a perfectionist in her tasks and indeed does a very good job in her duties, often staying until late and performing way beyond the standards that she is asked for.

However, whilst doing so, she is constantly complaining, especially to a small group of people, about how others do their work. Even though of course everything can always be improved and done at a higher level, as a manager I don’t see any clear reasons for complaint. All the opposite, I feel that everyone is working well and that the job is certainly getting done; many times even way over my expectations.

I know this employee personally, and I am aware that this negativity and expression of anger is not confined only to the workplace; it’s constantly applied also to her personal life.

This constant bickering I see is debilitating the team. People are starting to be snappy and on a bad mood and critical of each other. She especially has a small group of people that she complains to about the rest of the team on a regular basis. I see how this group has started distancing themselves from the rest and all have started to behave in a similar manner.
She has even started having confrontations and arguments with other people in the team.

I have listened to her complaints many times, but I just see that even when corrections are made, the criticism never stops; there is always something else to complain about.

Thank you for your advice!
Signed, Never Stops
Dear Don’t Say Never:
You describe a destructive pattern of work group communication, that you have observed has escalated from one to others in your group. You are wise to consider what are its causes and how you as a manager might engage this woman and the work group to communicate constructively.
Let me assure you upfront that when I post your question, in order to make this Q&A anonymous, I will delete the detail you include regarding the type of place of your employment.

You have not provided instances of criticism made by this perfectionist employee—the when, where, and about whom nor the language she uses. But you say it is constant and continues even after corrections are made. You observe it is primarily told to a cluster within the work group about something she sees done wrong and sometimes entails confrontation/arguments with those not in her small group to whom she voices her complaints. So far apparently the complaining and now bickering has not bled into the customer base of your business, but I sense you see that it can.
Your challenge as manager is twofold: one of substance—developing a workplace climate that is harmonious—and two of process—how to do more than listen to complaints and correct them. I will suggest several options, some that you may have already tried or are considering and some that might overlap or be different. There’s probably no sure way, but they should allow you to reflect on ways to manage other than to bite your tongue.

Option 1. Give orders. Let’s call her Sarah, “Sarah, stop it.” Apparently, to date, you have not made yourself clear how disturbed you are about her pattern of constant criticism (in your question you have used the word constant five times—that’s evidence of how much it disturbs you. Does she know you see her criticism is resulting in bickering, in a climate, as you say, that is “snappy” and in which there is “a bad mood” and members are “critical of each other”? Straight-talk with her, particularly if it is softened with your genuine appreciation for her excellent work and willingness to work overtime, could cause her to say to her mirror, “Sarah, Sarah, who’s not the fairest of them all, could it be me?” Of course on the other hand, it could cause her defensively to criticize you for blaming her for hostility in the group.

That a risk, but you have found that correcting her complaints about how things are done or not done doesn’t stop the complaining. Norms within a work group, like individual habits, have been stamped in by repetition. “Stop it orders” should make it out of bounds. Bossing can correct bad habits of communication, just like laws of making threats can deter making threats. It’s the responsibility of a manager to make clear what is not acceptable. It’s up to you. If Sarah can be made to understand that as manager, you are displeased, she then has the option of stopping her constant complaints or at least to make them less visible to you. So what are your other options?

Option 2. Counsel this employee. You might wait until she voices another complaint and then use that occasion to engage her in reviewing several such instances and whys of her complaints. Or you might log complaints that Sarah has made and the consequences of them and call her in to talk about what’s really bothering her. In such a meeting, you could discuss how she sees the operation of your center and her role in it. Such a conversation might begin as partially, but not entirely non-directive, saying, “Sarah, how do you see things going?”

In response to this kind of open-ended question, she likely will not hesitate spill her candid analysis of what’s wrong and who’s to blame. Here is where the counseling does not remain non-directive, because she needs to hear your analysis—such as you have described in this question you have submitted—that her constant complaining has soured the climate and has become detrimental to the work group and your center. Counseling is different than reprimanding; however, as manager, she should know your concern about her part in creating a bad climate.

Manager-associate collaborative problem-solving should result from such a session and follow up sessions. That could center on how to make your center one of the highest possible quality. At the same time, it could begin mentoring her on how she might shape her job to be more in line with her dream job—one in which she is happy and fulfilled, or find one that is. Initiating questions as to what do you want from your job now and what do you see as your career-direction are too often unasked by a boss. Unless she raises the issue of negativity and anger her life outside the workplace, it is best not brought into the conversation.

Option 3. Focus on work group team communication. Rather than ordering stop it or counseling her, approach the goal of how to make your work at the center more effective and doing the work to make that happen more satisfying and less frustrating. Notice that I see you use the word group three times and when you have used it you speak of two different clusters of those who work in your center. You refer to team twice and when you mention team you imply that includes the total work there, and that’s the way it should be. Achieving an effectively working team doesn’t just happen. It usually entails proper hiring, clear job description, coaching, training, goal setting, practice-practice and more practice, and celebration of success. In my on-site interviews of quality improvement from coast to coast and abroad and in my corporate training, I have seen and used varied approaches to team building. I’ll mention only three: conflict-managed, value-centered, and communication rule-centered.

Conflict-centered approaches to team building entail engaging a work group in what is causing it to be displeased. For example, beginning about a decade ago, the U.S. Veterans Administration focused on measuring the degree of incivility within its work groups. In a series of sessions, a facilitator engages a work group in venting and collaboratively analyzing causes for incivility and defining solutions. I met with the planers of this program and have followed its deployment. The program that developed for this approach is titled Civility, Respect, and Engagement in the Workplace (CREW) (http://www.va.gov/ncod/crew.asp) and has been deployed in 1,200 VA work groups. This site reports “civility impacts a variety of factors that are of importance to administrators, clinicians, and non-clinical staff, including higher overall job satisfaction, increased intent to stay in the current position, reduced sick leave usage, fewer EEO complaints, and better patient care outcomes.”

Conflict-centered team building has the advantage of surfacing various kinds of problems such as difficulties with management and certain employees, ineffective systems, unclear and poor job descriptions, and most of all verbal abuse and dissatisfying interpersonal communication. Conflict is seen not only as a problem, but as an opportunity.

If your center takes a conflict approach it could follow similar steps of collaboratively surfacing problems, analyzing causes and spelling out action. Such an approach, as is also true for a sports team that is not playing well, requires a series of sessions.

Value-centered approach to team-building has been used by a number of companies. All levels of natural work groups meet as they might in a staff meeting to list and prioritize the values that they see as important to their organization. These lists are exchanged and floated up to the highest levels that then reflect on their meaning. Values are articulated in a mission statement and managers with work groups collaboratively develop ways to apply them.
Your center might take a value-center approach. Inevitably, what’s not working interpersonally would surface and collaborative problem-solving could result.

Communication Rule-Centered team building engages talk about talk. Spelling out do and don’t rules about how a work group might communicate most effectively surfaces what is frustrating and what can prevent that. Such rules can entail
–How assignments are best made and when to meet for them.
–Who does what.
–Who approves/disapproves of work and how corrections should be communicated.
–What gossip is destructive.
–Email and phone protocols.
–Space allocation, grooming, and annoying behaviors.
–Insensitive and uncivil communication.
–Procedural language about how an agenda is formed, and how a meeting is efficient and productive.
–Importance of good manners, especially of making requests, avoiding bossing, and expressing gratitude.
–Special practices that foster well-being, (I’ll mention one article published by The Greater Good Science group at the Berkeley University of California, such as The Benefits of Feeling Awe By Jeremy Adam Smith | May 30, 2016. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_benefits_of_feeling_awe?utm_source=GG+Newsletter+June+1+2016&utm_campaign=GG+Newsletter+June+1+2016+&utm_medium=email)

Collaboratively making do and don’t rules, I predict, will reframe how your group sees itself—to that of seeing itself as a real team rather than as divided by one cluster gossiping about the other. The communication-rule making approach to team building is educative, establishes standards and expectations, and enables a team to review if it likes/dislikes and follows its rules.

The three approaches to team building overlap somewhat. The very process of collectively deciding on what might be the path to communicating effectively transforms how a work group and organization functions. As I sum up in my signature statement: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden