From Difficult to Disturbed

Understanding and Managing Dysfunctional Employees

 From Difficult to Disturbed

Author: Laurence Miller, Ph.D.
Pub Date: November 2007
Print Edition: $19.95
Print ISBN: 9780814416679
Page Count: 256
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814409671

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Human Nature and the Practical Psychology of Work

As a manager, you work hard. And if you're holding this book in your hand, it means that you want to manage smarter, better, and with a more positive impact on your people and your company. You're also aware that people are complex and you probably have been frustrated by the plethora of one-size-fits-all management guides that treat your employees as if they were cookie-cutter clones.

Welcome to the real world. This introductory chapter outlines the fundamental principles of practical psychology at work that define the manager's task and that will help you understand the challenges you face and how to handle them. This chapter also introduces the basic facts of personality and psychopathology that managers need to know in order to understand and effectively deal with the diverse members of their workforce.

Fundamental Principles of Practical Psychology at Work

Guiding this book is a set of truisms about organizational psychology and human behavior that every successful business manager understands intuitively or comes to learn through experience. Understand, assimilate, and use these principles and you will mold the kind of workforce other managers wish they had.

Every Workplace Is a Village

To survive the harsh natural environments that human beings evolved in and that shaped our mentality, socialization, and culture, we came of age as a species in the context of small bands or family groups. For most of our recorded human history, and for a far longer prehistorical epoch, we were born into and then played, hunted, gathered, mated, raised children, defended ourselves, and died amid no more than a few dozen related village mates. Later, as agriculture allowed larger and larger populations to occupy the same real estate and as specialization of work tasks led to what we now call civilization, basic human nature hardly budged and our hundred-thousand-year-old hominid brain still retains the tribal mentality that a mere few millennia of hieroglyphics and Web links cannot override.

Thus, even today, every workplace is a family, a tribe, a community. It is the place where many of us spend more than half our waking lives, where we form alliances and cultivate friendships, where we joust with rivals and spar with enemies. Work is where we try to realize our loftiest dreams or just get through the day; the place that gives many of us our core identity or just a livelihood. And like families, tribes, and communities everywhere, each workplace has its own norms, cultures, and colorful characters.

People Are Different

You already know this from your own family and friends. People have different temperaments, different styles of reacting to stress and interacting with others. Some people are hard-nosed, others easygoing. Some are generous to a fault, others fault finding and selfish. Some are a joy to work with and others suck the joy out of your workday. If you're a manager for any length of time, at one point or another you'll have most of these types working for you. And if you know how to deal with them—not trick them, not manipulate them, not "play" them, but understand their personality styles and form a mutual rapport at their own level—then they will want to give you their best, because making an effort to truly understand someone is one of the highest forms of respect.

Some of the material for this book grew out of my research and experience consulting with law enforcement and other public safety organizations. It is well known to anyone who watches TV cop shows that police officers have to deal with some of society's toughest customers. What may be less familiar is that police officers often are the toughest customers for their departments to deal with when it comes to matters of morale, discipline, integrity, honor, leadership, productivity, fairness, and the effects of one's personal life on his or her work life. No, I don't expect you to manage your organization like a sheriff's department or a police precinct, but many of the interpersonal management tools I teach to officers and their leaders can help you deal with your own work staff. Other principles and strategies come directly from corporate management psychology and can be uniquely and creatively applied to your individual company.

Still another source of input for this book came from my experience in clinical counseling and psychotherapy working with employees, managers, and CEOs in settings as diverse as a workers compensation rehab clinic, corporate briefing room, and clinical private practice. In talking with many of these people, I was frequently reminded of Freud's words when asked his view on the purpose of human life. He replied, "To love and to work." Much of the contribution of clinical therapists deals with the first part, but there has been an unfortunate tendency for mental health professionals to neglect or downplay work concerns as a source of stress and conflict in people's lives, often assuming that they are merely ancillary to, or symbolic of, family dynamics.

However, according to the theme of this book, work dynamics replicate family dynamics because they are family dynamics. What we see in action in the workplace are the daily operations and malfunctions of the tribal connection processes that have always permitted humans to function as interdependent teams and groups.

The Best Form of Crisis Intervention Is Crisis Prevention

Law enforcement, emergency services, and the workplace all come together in another aspect of my practice: on-site crisis intervention and emergency mental health services to organizations that have been jolted by a sudden tragedy such as a workplace violence incident, an armed robbery, a hostage situation, a natural disaster, or a corporate public relations crisis. It has become clear to me that the ability to make rapid decisions under stress is crucial for managers who want to help their people get through an emergency.

In addition, doing follow-up psychotherapy with traumatized employees has reinforced in my mind how vital it is for companies to let their people know that they will do everything possible to support them and take care of them after a major crisis. As a forensic psychologist and expert witness in work stress, disability, and compensation cases, I've developed a keen appreciation of how proper handling of conflict and stress on the job by knowledgeable managers and executives can sharply reduce disability claims, improve worker health and morale, and—here's the bottom line, literally—increase the productivity and profitability of your company.

These two parallel domains of management practice—fixing a bad situation and making a good situation better—are inextricably entwined. Like renovating a home, you tear down and repair while you build up and improve. Most crises are fluid, organic entities that evolve over a time course that can range from minutes to years, and at each stage, you want to have an established set of measures to prevent a few bad incidents from multiplying exponentially and exploding like a plague onto your organization. Hence, preparation, planning, and training are crucial. It follows that the best way to resolve a crisis is to prevent it from occurring in the first place and hardly a day goes by in the world of work that opportunities for staving off potential calamities do not occur but are, sadly, overlooked.

I often hear managers say, "What do I know about crisis management? Let the professionals handle it." However, as a manager, you are in a unique position to prevent most workplace crises from occurring by observing and intervening in low-level conflicts and confrontations before they become major conflagrations. Those professionals—police, firefighters, and paramedics—are, by definition, responders to emergencies that have already begun or escalated. The professionals can react, but they usually can't predict, anticipate, or prevent. Only you know your people as well as you do. Only you have taken the time and effort to understand the diversity of personalities in your workplace and how to manage your workforce in a fair and efficient way. This book will help you continue to do that smarter and better.

20/20 Hindsight - 20/20 Insight - 20/20 Foresight

Because it is often equated with second-guessing, Monday-morning quarterbacking, or useless self-flagellation, 20/20 hindsight has gotten a bum rap. In reality, however, looking back on an unsuccessful action and analyzing how it went down is an essential process for developing any skill—if the hindsight analysis leads to a certain degree of insight into what went wrong and how it happened. This insight into what happened last time can then be used to create a new set of options and action plans for next time—that is, foresight. What we're talking about is basically the concept of learning from experience. All true professionals, managers included, engage in an ongoing process of continuing education and self-improvement—the culture of knowledge noted in Chapter 12. This book is intended to contribute to that process.

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