I work in a small creative firm and have an employee who is technically very good, but a few times now has expressed this “what’s in it for me?” attitude when asked to consider contributing to something that is outside the realm of their regular job. (And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we regularly ask or expect people to put in overtime, or go above and beyond the call of duty, but from time to time every company needs its people to go that extra mile).
By way of example, our company recently ran an internal contest to rewrite our phone system message to the outside world. Senior management figured that with a bunch of creatives in-house it would be a positive step to invite internal people to come up with something witty and fun. The first thing this employee asked was “What’s in it form me? Are there prizes or anything?” When the contest creator explained that they’d get corporate recognition in the newsletter and the opportunity to influence the public image, this person responded that wasn’t enough, and that the company was “saving money” by not hiring someone creative to do it, so they didn’t feel “incented” to participate. I was told about my employee’s “attitude”…
Now I hate the usual generic management-speak about “being a team player” and “can do” attitudes and all that, but it really irked me and this obviously reflects badly on this person in terms of general perception within the company. It’s not like we were asking people to work nights and weekends for a month or anything. I also don’t like this “what’s in it for me?” attitude over the smallest things being propagated amongst my team. Maybe I’m old school, but it comes across as negative and unmotivated to me. I mean it’s one thing if that was the person’s internal perception, but another entirely to publicly declare that unless they are getting compensated financially, they aren’t interested in participating in something as simple and silly as a phone message contest.
My problem is that I don’t know how to approach this person to indicate that it makes me less inclined to promote them, and certainly doesn’t reflect well on them with respect to how they are perceived by others in the company without it coming off as critical and/or confrontational
I’m looking for a non-confrontational way to explain that this kind of attitude is going to hurt this person’s career, here or anywhere… and encourage them to reconsider their responses to these kinds of things. I don’t want to sound like I am spouting “Successories” poster jargon, however. Can you help or am I unrealistic in thinking that I can somehow influence a person to change this kind of behavior?
You say you don’t want to criticize, but criticism is actually necessary for improvement. Let me give you an example: I’m taking German lessons. My teachers correct us every time we make a mistake. This way we learn. A friend, who is also new to Switzerland, but no longer taking formal lessons said he’s given up learning anything from adults: “If I make a grammar mistake, they just politely ignore it, even when I tell them that I want to be corrected. I now try to talk to children as much as possible, as they’ll always point out my errors.”
Now, of course, the difference between us German learners and your employee is that we know we need help and we want it. Unfortunately, for you, part of the job of a manager is to let your employees know when they need help. This is critical for everyone’s success.
Use the contest issue, as it’s a clear example. Often times when people go to address a behavior their minds go completely blank and they can’t think of a single example, even though there are probably 482 examples.
Sit the employee down, in a closed door meeting (no listening co-workers). Explain that she is technically very good, but that her attitude is causing some problems. Use the contest example. She will complain and protest. Expect this.
Say: “The negative attitude makes me less inclined to promote you, and certainly doesn’t reflect well on you with respect to how you are perceived by others in the company.”
She will deny and complain and protest and reiterate how stupid the contest is. You can show empathy, but then it’s your turn to reiterate what you said above. (And note, I just copied this from your e-mail. You already know what needs to be said.)
After your third iteration of this, tell her politely that the conversation is now over and it’s her decision on how she responds to things, but that it does affect her career. And that’s what is in it for her.