Mars has received a good deal of attention in recent weeks, not least prompted by the UAE’s own exciting plans to land an unmanned probe on the planet’s surface in 2021. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has also created quite a stir of excitement, with the confident suggestion that a manned flight to Mars could be attempted in the next decade or so. The eventual idea – that a colony of maybe a million people could eventually be established on the red planet – certainly captures the imagination, even if the feasibility of the whole enterprise still appears to be somewhat questionable to some people.
Among all the thrilling details of interplanetary travel, however, one fairly mundane detail struck me. The proposed flight across the emptiness of space might, apparently, take a matter of months – perhaps three or four by some estimates – which seems like an inordinate amount of time to be in enforced proximity with a group of people you might know very little about or have much in common with. Worse still, if you discover one of those people happens to be genuinely unpleasant or actively disruptive. If the idea of being trapped on an airplane beside an incorrigible talker for a matter of hours fills you with dismay, then the Mars flight could be a very long trip indeed.
There is, I think, a nice parallel with the people you can find yourself working with. You might share some basic common interests – in the Mars ship, presumably some sort of compulsion to go to Mars; at work, likely a similar set of professional skills or an interest in the employer’s business – though perhaps not much more. You will probably also need to cooperate – at work, to simply get things done; in space, to at least stay out of the way of the person piloting the whole thing.
In both, there is also a shared sense of inescapability to the situations. Exiting a Mars-bound spacecraft is, evidently, an overly terminal decision, while quitting a role because of a colleague is rarely a realistic short-term option.
Instead, I suggest that in both situations, most people would fairly quickly and naturally find a stable status quo, where relations with others are maintained to, at least, a minimum level of affability and effectiveness. If you happen to really like your associates, great. If not, well at least the general direction of travel continues as smoothly as it should.
However, there can be a real problem when an actually toxic element is present in the workforce. Perhaps an aggrieved employee with an axe to grind about perceived injustices they have received at the hands of the employer. Maybe a team leader who has lost all motivation to do any work or engage with their reports.
Such individuals are far more of a problem because not only are they likely to have stopped producing much themselves, but they also potentially poison the experience of people around them. They might leave others perpetually annoyed that they are left covering for falling productivity, or feeling pressured and bullied because of their unpleasant approach. Whole teams can succumb to such influences and the effects can be disastrous.
As a business, dealing with these people is not always as simple as jettisoning them into the void either. For example, they might represent a considerable investment in training and development or perhaps have specialist skills and experience that are not readily replaced. The source of their attitude might also be difficult to discern. How, for example, do you distinguish between an individual who has responded poorly, but understandably, to a personal issue, from someone who has entirely lost interest in your organisation? Potentially you risk losing a valuable employee who may just need help to get back on course.
In many cases, using a mixture of coaching and direct feedback is preferable to acting too rashly. If you believe you didn’t recruit inherently toxic elements, then working to neutralise a negative atmosphere leaves you best placed to retain the positive attributes an employee previously offered. This approach takes effort and can often meet resistance from all sides, but it can also be less costly in the long-term than having to turn the whole ship around.
Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group
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