Question From a Reader…
“How do you deal with staff who are constantly “starting fires”? Nothing is ever fair, etc.”
You should first target the exact behavior that the person is doing when they “start fires”. Are they complaining to other staff members about issues and stirring up resentment? Are they being abrasive or annoying to coworkers who then come to you for assistance? Are they engaging in gossip or backstabbing?
You need to identify the behavior because the next step is be clear about the behavior you want to see instead.
For the sake of discussion, let’s say the “fire starter” is complaining to people and stirring up dissatisfaction. Your positive goal would be to help them register complaints in a more appropriate way and relate to coworkers in a more optimistic manner.
In general, you want to make the problem behavior become more of a problem or a nuisance for THEM while making the constructive behavior become easier and more rewarding.
How could you do that? One idea is to have a discussion with the “fire starter” and point out that they seem to be very good at spotting problems in the workplace. Then, put them to work for 1 hour every day writing out in detail (in a private area) ALL of the things that they see wrong with the business or the current workplace.
After they have done that, have them start to work on writing out in detail five constructive ideas they could propose for solving each of the problems they identified.
You should discuss these matters very seriously in great detail and make it genuine hard work for this person. If one of their solutions is missing something or overlooking something important, then point it out to them and have them go back and revise it to take into account the facts that they missed.
This will do a couple of things.
(1) It will make them see that finding solutions is a lot more difficult than just complaining,
(2) It will help them realize that complaining about unimportant things is not worth the extra work that will be required of them, and,
(3) If they have any genuinely valid complaints that really ought to be addressed, then you will now have someone who can help to improve things (be sure to capitalize on this if it happens).
I would have this person do this special problem-solving work for at least several days, but ideally continue until they appear to be running dry and wanted to stop several hours ago.
Then, tell them that if they have any more complaints about unfairness or anything else at ANY time in the future, they should come directly to you so that they can immediately start working on solving the problem with more problem-solving sessions.
Also tell them that if they don’t come to you, then you will assume they are happy with everything and are helping others to feel good about their place of work.
It’s likely that they will complain again to someone else. So, be sure to respond right away and give them more problem-solving sessions to address the problem, but add another problem for them to solve – have them figure out how they are going to complain to you first instead of to their coworkers. Then have them carry out the solutions they came up with.
Do this as many times as necessary until they either improve their behavior or quit.
Whenever they are behaving more appropriately, be sure to compliment them on their positive attitude and constructive contributions. Your goal is to get this positive ball rolling with them.
Mark Lauderdale MD FRCPC
Psychiatrist and Personal Effectiveness Coach