Why are long-serving staff often labeled as difficult?
When I hear managers talking about strong personalities at their work who consistently resist change, who have a strong negative influence over others, why are they often speaking about long-serving staff?
Yes, we know that difficult people come in all shapes, sizes and lengths of service. But why is it that long-serving staff are often identified by others as ‘difficult’.
It is an interesting phenomenon and I think there are a few reasons for this:
- Confidence and security in their position: That’s the great thing about experience. The more experience a person has, the more confident they feel to speak up. When a person has worked in a particular sector for some years, they have perhaps seen it all before and may have strong opinions about what will or won’t work.
Unfortunately, if they resist every initiative, they can easily develop a negative reputation over time. And, if they have a future planned beyond the current workplace, they might feel like they don’t have much to lose.
- A strong passion for their work: Passion for one’s work is a wonderful thing. But it also has a dark side – speaking forcefully about a particular issue. There is nothing wrong with speaking forcefully, at times. However, this can be easily misread as disrespectful, particularly if it is combined with a strong personality, some emotion, and a direct communication style.
We, of course, can value a colleague’s passion and acknowledge this is a positive way. Their part is to pick their fights carefully, moderate their delivery, when this is needed, and provide solutions that also take into consideration their workplace’s position.
- Unhappiness at home or work: Yes, we all go through personal challenges at different times. And while most people don’t let these challenges affect their performance at work, some do. While we can’t do much about people’s stress at home, we can at least appreciate the underlying factors and address those stressors at work that are in our control.
Goodness knows, if there is one stressor I hear more complaints about than anything else, it is managers – those who are unsupportive, who overuse a top-down decision-making style, who fail to show sufficient recognition of efforts. Often, changes in a particular manager’s leadership style can result in changes in the behaviour of team members.
- No-one has held them accountable: One of the interesting things I notice about the great majority of Australians is a high level of reluctance to speak directly with their manager or colleagues about concerns they have with them.
In defense of people who avoid such conversations, it is often harder to speak to a colleague who is more senior to you. Many people may have tried before and received a hostile response. Or the colleague has a long history of behaving poorly. So, it is easy to think they lack a capacity for change.
While there is a time to ignore or simply get over frustrations with colleagues, problem behaviour, particularly by senior staff, when it is tolerated for too long, sets a very low standard for others to follow.
It becomes the benchmark for behaviour that is considered acceptable. If ongoing negativity, disrespectful communication, and consistent resistance to change are modeled over time, morale plummets and performance suffers.