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Stopping Employee Negativity in its Tracks


An old but popular expression notes that one bad apple can spoil the entire bunch. That proverb also holds true where employees are concerned. The key is to stop any negativity spread before it spirals out of control.

An old but popular expression notes that one bad apple can spoil the entire bunch. That proverb also holds true where employees are concerned — especially in a small- to mid-sized medical practice where it’s critical for the staff to function like a finely tuned machine in order to manage chronically ill patients.

“Behaviors like whining and negativity have a tendency to spread like the flu and become habitualized with people,” says Rick Brinkman, MD, a naturopathic physician and co-author of the book Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst (McGraw-Hill; 3rd revised edition 2012). “One person on the staff can get them going. And before you know it, everyone is dragged down.”

The key is to stop the negativity spread before it spirals out of control.

One man’s ceiling…

Rick Kirschner, MD, the book’s other author, says there’s a perceptual aspect to the problem of difficult employee behavior that cannot be overstated. That is, what seems to be difficult behavior to one person is really a great choice in behavior to another. The person who wants to hang out and chat, in sub-context, that’s thought of as being friendly or helpful.

“The problem is if you have somebody who’s really trying to get results; really trying to get things done in the office,” Kirschner explains. “The person who’s nice and friendly is going to feel dismissed and diminished. So it’s not like really bad behavior in people that produces the effect of difficult people. Sometimes it’s just differences in behavior that get labeled as difficult. And once you label it that way, you have to treat it that way.”

Sometimes what seems like whining and negative behavior might actually be created — at least in part — by the physician. Brinkman explains that whining comes from the feeling of being helpless, and negativity from being hopeless. These two feelings can rise to the surface in an environment pairing a more aggressive physician with staff that is more people-oriented.

If the staff is made up of very agreeable members, they can become “yes” people, Brinkman says. They’ll consent to work and deadlines that might not be realistic just because they automatically agree.

“And then they make a commitment they can’t keep,” he says. “That’s also a very common dynamic. Because the physician role is one of higher authority, and if they own their own clinic they certainly are of higher authority, so people can respond with some more helpless or passive behaviors.”

Getting at the core

Brinkman believes that the best place to start when attempting to head off negativity at an early stage is by getting into the employee’s world.

“Nobody cooperates with anybody who seems to be against them,” he points out, adding that if you try to talk to an employee from outside their world, you end up pounding on a wall and not being heard. “You have to meet them where they are. A blending skill is absolutely necessary to set the stage for possibly difficult conversations.”

Kirschner agrees, and suggests physicians adopt what he calls a naïve listening mode — pretending that you really don’t know what’s going on, even if you think you do. Remain curious, and ask more questions to gather more information. But don’t just talk to the employee in question — get additional perspectives.

“Assume that everybody is going to be right from their point of view,” Kirschner says. “But by definition, point of view only includes so much. You would want to consider everybody’s point of view a useful piece of the puzzle. And if you talk to everybody, then you can see the third dimension. You can see what the dynamic really is — what screw to turn, so to speak. It becomes a smaller fix once you realize how it all fits together.”

Feedback and healing

According to Brinkman, allowing a negative employee situation to fester can impact a medical practice in the form of lost revenue, bad medical outcomes, and lost referrals.

“The list just goes on,” he points out.

That’s why it’s important to understand that a problem is not going to disappear overnight. Reinforcement is essential. When you see the employee in question doing something right, or engaging in good fashion with another employee with whom there may have been bad blood, tell them what a good job they’re doing.

“We call this strengthening the relationship,” Kirshner says. “It means if they succeed you revisit it and acknowledge them for their success. And if they fail, you revisit and acknowledge them for trying, and find out what went wrong. Reward the good behavior, and learn about the bad. It’s not failure; it’s feedback.”

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