Whether you’re leading an entire improvement programme or a single Lean Six Sigma project you’ll have realised that the most important factor of any improvement activity is the people. Improvement projects always run smoothly when everyone on the team is pulling in the same direction and everyone in the organisation is providing that team with the resources to succeed. This article shows you how to manage people who aren’t pulling in the same direction, or who aren’t even pulling at all.
Organisations are run by many people and very often by a diverse set of people. As a result, there is a possibility that you may face a “Debbie Downer” or a “Negative Norman” – humorous labels to mean negative people. These people can make running workshops extremely difficult and they can have a big influence on the entire group with their negative thinking – to coin a popular phrase, “one bad apple spoils the bunch”. So how do we handle this type of person?
Your Negative Norman may have a legitimate reason for being difficult, so you’ll have to find the root cause. For example, the organisation may have tried continuous improvement in the past where employees had been given the opportunity to make improvements. However, for some reason the programme never fully took off meaning no improvements were made and people were left with nothing but a bad experience. Another alternative may be that our Negative Norman fears this improvement could make him redundant or that he’s been forced onto the project by his line manager.
One method to find the root cause is simply asking questions during a one-two-one mentor meeting. You can ask them how they arrived at being a team member on the project, what concerns they have and how they’re feeling about the programme. If they brought up any points during an earlier workshop or meeting you can address these points directly by saying you thought they brought up some very valid issues and asking if they’d like to expand on them.
Sometimes, like all of us, they may have just had a bad day, so don’t assume it always has something to do with the improvement programme or even work. People’s family life, health and other factors influence their behaviour.
Using the information from above, you’ll be able to ascertain whether their reason for negativity is a legitimate one, simply a one-off or if they’re being purposely disruptive to the programme.
This will depend on the root cause. If Debbie Downer is having a bad day, you might just want to dismiss it as a one-off, but make sure you record it just in case this type of behaviour resurfaces. If she’s had a bad improvement experience in the past, you can reassure her that this time is different. If you’ve completed any other improvement projects within the organisation you can use these as an example of what can be achieved. If Debbie Downer is worried about her role, you’ll need to reassure her that the improvement is there to benefit her, free-up her time to do more value added work and hence make her an even more valuable employee. If she feels this way then it is likely that more people will feel the same. In this case, you’ll need to speak to senior management so they can communicate to everyone that the improvement programme is a positive thing to make their lives better.
If Debbie Downer is having outside work difficulties, you may need to give her time away from the project or ask if she needs any support from their line manager. If she has told you something in confidence, but you feel it should be dealt with by her line manager, then you’ll need to encourage her to speak to her manager and offer support where possible.
It is not uncommon to come across people who are just set in their ways. If this is the case then there is no “one-size fits all” approach. After speaking to the person they may agree that they’ve been difficult, but promise to change their behaviour. In such a case you should document this, agree actions with a plan and the team member should sign it. You’ll also need to make their line manager aware of the situation and what has been agreed. Allow the time needed for the person to make the changes and when they do so praise them for their efforts. If the person is still being disruptive you’ll need to take action to remove them from the team as they’ll affect the success of the project.
Dealing with difficult people is just part of management and is such a common topic that there are many books written on this subject specifically aimed at handling Negative Normans & Debbie Downers. One thing that is very important is that you develop good relationships with and constantly communicate to their line managers as they can be a great resource to help you with negative team members.
I wouldn’t want you leaving this page as a Negative Norman or Debbie Downer, so I wanted to close-off on a positive note. Being part of a continuous improvement process can lead to some very strong working relationships. It’s a fantastic opportunity for you and your team members to make a real difference in your organisation, and to be seen as heroes for all your hard work.