my employee identifies proudly as a grump

A reader writes:

I manage a small team of creative people and we all have different work styles (as defined during a company-wide professional growth workshop.)

One team member has so strongly identified with her more aggressive and direct work style that I find she is using it as a crutch to excuse bad behavior like having a negative attitude about her work or being short or dismissive of coworkers. “Well, that’s just me. I’m a grump, everyone knows that’s my work style!” she’ll say in a light-hearted way.

We have a casual workplace and I’m friendly with my employees, but I’m finding it difficult to guide her to be more positive without it coming across like, “Don’t be yourself!” or like I’m critiquing her personality instead of it being about a work issue.

I have tried to curb this behavior by saying, “No, we don’t see you that way” when she self identifies with that “everyone knows” kind of language as being a negative person/grumpy/”bad with people.” I’ve praised her when she handles situations the way I would expect (with a collaborative spirit and openness).

My biggest concern is how this is impacting her work and how she interacts with the rest of the team. She has expressed interest to me in being promoted and taking on more responsibility with more creative freedom, but when I have brought opportunities to her to take ownership and have more space for creativity, she has reacted negatively both through her body language (literally frowning and scowling in meetings) and through her commentary (“Ugh, this is just asking a lot” and a lot of self doubt and generally defeatist attitude).

I want her to feel supported and I don’t want her to feel like I’m picking on her for what she has embraced as a personality trait but I’m hitting a wall.

“That’s just me!” is not a get-of-out-jail-free card for any and all negative traits.

If someone tried to explain away their sexual harassment of a coworker or their extreme inability to get along with clients as “that’s just me!” I’m guessing that you’d deal with it directly and decisively, not worry about wanting them to feel supported. It’s the same thing here.

You’re feeling hesitant and like you’re hitting a wall because you’re looking at this as a personality trait, but her work style/personality/whatever you want to call it affects her work and her relationships with coworkers. It’s just as much your business as an issue with her actual work product would be, and you have the same standing to tell her it’s not acceptable and needs to change. You have the same standing to expect/require her to be reasonably pleasant to coworkers as you do to expect/require her to meet deadlines. You just need to articulate it as part of the job.

It’s reasonable to say, “I need someone in this role who can maintain good relationships with colleagues” or “who can approach new ideas with a sense of possibility rather than shutting them down” or so forth. And it’s reasonable to say, “When you’re short with people, like you were with Bob in today’s meeting, people will start going around you for help. If people are afraid to approach you, you can’t be effective in your role here.”

That’s not picking on her or critiquing her personality. That’s laying out clear expectations for what she needs to do to succeed in her job.

You’ve been hinting at this, by pushing back when she calls herself a grump or praising her when she’s not a grump. But you need to tackle it more head-on, with a sit-down conversation framed as “I’ve noticed you frequently say that you’re grumpy or not good with people. I don’t believe that’s true, but more importantly, those aren’t things you can be in this job. You can feel however you want on the inside, but externally I need you to ____ (not be dismissive to coworkers/be open to new projects rather than scowling and shooting them down/etc.).”

You should also say, “You’ve expressed interest in being promoted and taking on more responsibility with more creative freedom, but when I’ve given you opportunities to take ownership and have more space for creativity, you’ve reacted negatively. (Give a couple of examples here.) If that’s a path you want to pursue, I need you to show you’re open to those opportunities and enthused about taking them on. I can’t consider giving you more responsibility if you push back against it when I try to.” I’d also talk here about what that would look like, because she genuinely might not be able to envision it. (And if there are times when she’s done this well, cite those.)

You should also specifically name the other behavior that’s holding her back — her tendency to attribute toxic behaviors to “that’s just who I am.” You could say, “I’ve heard you say that your work style is ‘grump’ and while that was funny the first time you said it, it’s not something that is actually okay to live out here. You need to get along with coworkers and you need to be reasonably pleasant and easy to work with, and it’s not okay to opt out of that or to explain it as ‘work style,’ just like your work style couldn’t be ‘missing deadlines’ or ‘alienating clients.’”

You might also show her this article by the great Marshall Goldmith called “An Excessive Need to Be Me,” where he points out that a rigid allegiance to “being yourself” can sometimes be pointless vanity — and at odds with actually benefitting yourself and the people around you.

But tackle this like you would any other problem with her work. Don’t get thrown off by the fact that she’s presenting this as who she is rather than how she behaves.

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