They lurk in the dark shadows near the break room. Their mere presence, and longevity remind all that what surrounds them is a less-than-optimal work culture. They are every hard-working manager’s nightmare. As “owners” of the culture, they take pride in their power of destruction. Complaining daily of perceived failed promises, corporate ideocracy, lack of fair compensation and appreciation, they whittle away at the team’s morale one hour at a time. Every new hire who comes onto the team is ceremoniously on-boarded with their version of “the truth.” High hopes and enthusiastic energy is sucked from the new employee until their well is dry.
“Don’t work too hard or they will give you more to do.”
“They never hold anyone accountable here.”
“We have seen it all before, nothing ever changes.”
“Management doesn’t care about us.”
“Everyone here quits after a year.”
Except these parasites don’t. They linger and linger and continue to drain the life-blood out of the manager who has inherited them. They are the Vampires of No Accountability (VONA) and keepers of the flame of the negative workplace culture.
How does a well-meaning leader rid themselves of these culture parasites?
First and foremost, they must be identified. Listen to the language of your employees. Who among them persists with a “my work life sucks” daily attitude, performs at the bare minimum and occupies 80% of your time with their complaints?
Have a list now?
Most leaders can easily identify the VOKA on their teams within minutes. The sad fact is that they don’t know what to do next. The VOKA are well-schooled in riding the line of acceptable behavior. In fact, they have perfected the art of making the air around them so toxic that most managers avoid them at all costs. However, no matter how uncomfortable it is to deal with them, your workplace culture will never change until they are gone.
That’s right, gone.
The truth is that VONA are incapable of rehabilitation. They have such little self-reflection or care for others that motivation and empathy are simply words on an engagement poster that the “company” puts up in the breakroom. The other challenging factor is that they don’t want to go. Why would someone so unhappy with their work environment want to stay, you may ask? It’s simple. Well situated in their VONA role they don’t have to be accountable. They can do the bare minimum and blame everyone else for failures. There are a million reasons why they can’t do their job, complete the report on time, make a difference, or engage in problem solving. They are simply…” too busy and overworked”. Their answer is always…what you are asking of them is impossible. And stupid. And not fair.
The answer to riding your team of the VONA, barring wearing necklaces of garlic, is to ignore them. That’s right. Ignore them.
Just like the age-old advice that Mom and Dad dispelled regarding your 8th-grade bullies. By ignoring the VONA you take away their life-sucking power. If no one is willing to drop what they are doing to listen to the 5, 467th complaint they have this week, and “fix” the things not working in the department, what would they do?
Complaining is the life-blood of the VONA. It feeds their ego and their entitlement fantasy. It validates why they are not performing at a high level. The true path to ridding your team of these blood-suckers is to literally focus all of your coaching, mentoring attention to those on the team that are putting forth effort- and reward them. Look for those teammates who have a sense of the greater good, a few ideas about improvement, and ask meaningful questions as it relates to working smarter, not harder. Find your employees that are confident and feel good about themselves and engage them in working together for a more noble cause. Find a common concern that is bigger than any one person and invite them to problem solve together to remove barriers for all. Let the VONA know they are invited but that’s it. No begging, no pleading, no kowtowing to “needing them” on the team.
The number one mind-blowing fact to engagement is that it starts with the individual employee.
Motivation is self-owned. Managers can stoke, support, coach, and encourage self-development and growth but ultimately that leap from renter to owner is the employee’s decision.
Great leaders will spot the burgeoning seeds of excitement and stoke the fire daily to inspire.
Great leaders will also understand that allowing VONA to reside and breathe toxicity within the team is the biggest mistake they can make.
Teams would rather work short than deal with the draining energy of a toxic employee. According to the Harvard Business Review, “people close to a toxic employee are more likely to become toxic themselves, but the good news is that the risk also subsides quickly. As soon as you put some physical distance between the offender and the rest of the team – for example, by rearranging desks, reassigning projects, scheduling fewer all-hands meetings, or encouraging more work-from-home days — you’ll see the situation start to improve.”
Grab your list of VONA. Commit to the following for 30-60 days and see what happens to your team’s culture.
- Distance yourself and the team from the daily complaints. Do not allow VONA to take up more than 30 minutes of your time weekly. When complaints are voiced offer to meet with them to discuss but set a date at least 7 days away. Do not reward bad behavior by stopping what you are doing to entertain their latest complaint.
- Set expectations for the VONA. Empathize(initially) with their dissatisfaction. Acknowledge their feelings and suggest ways they can be part of the solution or self-sooth if it is a working constraint. Role model professional behavior always.
- Identify specific language and behaviors that are unacceptable in your working environment. Don’t’ shy away from having the “If you are really so unhappy maybe this might not be the right fit for you right now” conversation. No one can argue that they have a choice to look elsewhere to find happiness.
- Spend 80% of your coaching time on those employees that are engaged and working together harmoniously. Assure them that you are working on establishing limits within the workplace culture. Invite them to peer interview all new hires with the agreed upon team values. Dilute the pool on your team to water down the effects of the VONA.
- Document everything. Unfortunately, many VONA will not go down without a good fight. It is your job to show them the light if they are unable or unwilling to perform as expected. This includes behaviorally. Specific, clear expectations and consequences for non-compliance are necessary.
- Recognize the tipping point. When the VONA begin to leave (either from self-direction or your direction) notice the mood and engagement of the other teammates. Are they helping you to recruit? Are they more engaged? These signs point to the positive shift of the culture. Hold on and stay consistent. Do not hire “a body” just to fill a position. This is a crucial time in culture development and patience will pay off in the long term.
- Celebrate small wins. The loss of one VONA can have HUGE impacts on the team’s morale. The weight is lifted. Enjoy the shadowless corridors.
- Don’t forget your own mental health. Fighting the VONA daily is exhausting. Be sure to find ways to decompress and fill your bucket with meaningful work. Do not let them infect you, or worse, escort you to the dark side.
You must protect your team from the Vampires of No Accountability much like you would protect them from a disease. Immunize your newly energized culture with rewards, recognition, and attention. Remind them how much they have accomplished together and how far they have come. Do not allow new VONA to join your team, no matter how short. You have the power to upend the culture of significant drama and infighting.
Lead your team into the sunlight.