Angry all the time

Columns - Industry Voices

August 12, 2014
Jim Huston
Jim Huston

Jim Huston

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Huston’s new book “Job Descriptions for Green Industry Professionals” to be published this fall.

It was Friday afternoon in early May. The season had just gotten in full gear. Bill walked into Dave Rykbost’s office. Dave is president of Dave’s Landscape Co., near Boston. Bill was 50 years old and had worked for Dave for many years as a residential construction foreman. Bill blurted out, “Dave, if I don’t get a $2 an hour raise by Monday, I quit!”

I arrived at Dave’s office shortly after Bill’s pronouncement and asked Dave how the week was wrapping up. He said, “It just turned to &^%&.” He then recounted the episode.

I queried Dave with some questions. First, how much revenue did Bill’s three-man crew generate per year? Second, how were his workmanship and his ability as a crew leader? Third, how was his attitude? Dave told me that Bill’s crew, without subcontractor revenue, generated about $450,000 per year.

That’s $150,000 per man per year and well above the industry benchmark of $100,000. Dave then went on to explain that Bill was great both as a crew leader and in his workmanship. Customers loved him and he needed minimal supervision. He didn’t forget things and he did things right the first time.

That was the good news. The bad news? Bill had a terrible attitude. It hadn’t always been so. Somehow over the years, Bill’s attitude went south. He was an excellent employee except for this shortcoming and it made his life and the lives of those around him miserable.

Like a frog in a kettle of cold water with a fire underneath, no one notices the temperature rising until it’s too late and the frog gets cooked. That’s what happened to Bill. He “cooked” himself and no one noticed. Dave gave Bill the $2 an hour raise but he quit anyway. Go figure!

A common tale. I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen this exact scenario play out. A good, long-term employee gradually turns sour. It gets to the point where the employee poisons the company atmosphere. Everyone walks around like they are walking on eggshells. Everyone knows not to piss off so-and-so or all hell will break out. No one takes the initiative to deal with the person and their attitude.

Eventually, the employee makes a scene and then quits. In the worst-case situation, disgruntled employees actually do harm to themselves and their fellow workers.

The concept of attitude is often hard to grasp or define. Attitude is subjective and often lacks clearly defined parameters.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had a similar problem defining hard-core pornography. Although he had difficulty clearly defining what it was, he retorted with his famous phrase, “I know it when I see it.”

The challenge is for us to take what is subjective or intuitive and clarify it.

No tolerance. Staff members who get sick or have physical ailments often call in sick. They know that it’s better for them and often other employees to stay home and recover. This is legitimate for a couple of reasons.

First, they will probably not be very productive at work. Second, they may spread what they have and infect other workers with their illness. In like manner, it is a wise thing to do the same with attitude.

If you come to work with a bad attitude, you are going to infect other employees and productivity will, in all likelihood, decrease. The “disease” will be infectious. It will spread and have a negative impact on the company culture.

I believe that the best way to counter bad attitudes and their effect upon your organization is to be proactive and deal with the issue head-on. First, identify what the standards are regarding attitude(s) in your company. Make them explicit.

Second, include these standards in your company employee manual, job descriptions and employee contracts. As philosopher John Dewey once said, “A problem well defined is a problem half solved.” Third, lead by example and display the attitudinal qualities that you want everyone in the company to exhibit. Fourth, teach your managers and staff to do the same.

Make it known throughout the organization that attitudes are very determinative and thus very important. Fifth, hold everyone accountable to these attitudinal standards. Sixth, reward those with good attitudes and punish those with bad ones. Make them use a sick day and take the day off until they recover. You could also give them a day off without pay. By making attitude(s) explicit – clearly defined – you’ve taken the first step toward creating not only a high-energy company but also a high-production company as well.

Cool down. The concept of attitude is a slippery one. It’s hard to define and harder still to quantify and measure. Like pornography, it may be hard to define but you know it when you see it. Make having and displaying a positive attitude, like any other skillset, a part of your job descriptions.

It should and must be a part of your company culture. Like someone with the flu, people experiencing a bad attitude should call in “sick,” otherwise they might infect the whole company.