Steven Cesare, Ph.D.
A landscaper from Missouri called me the other day to vent and seek guidance regarding the increased number of employees in his company whining about how they feel unappreciated. Not only are more employees whining to him, but they are doing so more often and more emphatically than ever before. While he has tried to address the issue on a case-by-case basis for the past several months, it has now reached the point where he fears it may dominate the organizational culture. He thought it was time to make a telephone call.
Paradoxically, the Company is growing at an impressive rate which has fueled the employees’ complaints that they are now “working too hard.” A positive derivative of that growth has been consistent pay raises as part of the business owner’s commitment to promote employee retention, satisfaction, and engagement; yet the refrain that employees “feel unappreciated” has become even more boisterous by those same rewarded employees. Approaching snowflake-like griping, the landscaper is frequently confronted by employees lodging puerile complaints about gossip, microaggressions, and perceived insensitivity from just about everyone every day.
Keep in mind, this is a landscaping company, not a day care center, social worker convention, or a half-way house for thinly-skinned trust fund beneficiaries. These employees are adults who mow lawns, prune shrubs, and install hardscape for a living.
In response to the landscaper’s plea, I offered the following three-step approach.
First, I instructed the landscaper to inoculate himself from all negative energy. The aphorism “misery loves company” remains precautionary. I admonished him to not let the whining, gossip, and bleating overwhelm his sense of self, potentially bleeding over into his family, personal, or home life. Compartmentalize it, don’t own it; be empathic, but not an enabler. Lamentably, people with kind hearts and sincere compassion frequently get drawn inexorably into emotional quicksand. Compartmentalizing negativity is not denial; it is distance.
Second, I suggested the landscaper adopt a behaviorally inquisitive style from this point forward. Rather than listening to an employee’s emotional catharsis, he should redirect attention onto identifying those behaviors (from a supervisor, coworker, owner) that led to the employee feeling “unappreciated,” “marginalized,” and “taken for granted.” Instead of tilting at the subjective windmills of “company culture,” ”leadership elitism”, or “interpersonal disconnects” I encouraged the landscaper to get the complainants to specify the policies, behaviors, or decisions that provoke their unhappiness. With a defined behavior, we now have a tangible incident that be addressed. With behavioral evidence, the landscaper can begin pragmatic analysis, resolution, and follow-up capable of explanation.
Behavioral specificity can lead to improved communication, training, conflict resolution, best practices, teamwork, and hopefully a more positive work environment. I readily acknowledged to the landscaper that we are not therapists, counselors, or magicians capable of rectifying all real or imagined injustices. We are simply trying to improve our employees’ work experience; but they must take an active role in that corrective action as well. A collaborative solution is the best remedy,
Third, I directed the landscaper to continually remind the employees, in one-on-one as well group settings, that they are role models for each other, they are professionals, and they ultimately are the drivers of the company culture. “Stop being victims, and start being victorious.” Complaints without a cure are corrosive. The landscaper must incrementally shift the perception, prescription, and plight onto the employees to help themselves and each other improve their working relationships.
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