My team and I travel across the country visiting and working with Head Start and Early Head Start grantees and several themes common to many programs emerge as we conduct a gap analysis to help program’s identify their strengths and their vulnerabilities, their risks under Designation and Renewal if they have a pending on-site review or conduct any of the other services that Willow Tree Early Education Team has the capacity to provide.

Over the next few weeks I would like to discuss those themes and stimulate some discussion with the Head Start community, the best problem solvers on the planet!

“One rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel” is a phrase that many are familiar with and while its origins are a bit cloudy there is no doubt it has been recognized as a truism for many centuries (I like the Chaucer reference that dates back to the Canterbury Tales written at the end of the 14th century!).

The same negative influence that a bad piece of fruit can have on its barrel-mates is inevitably true in our workplace, one wrong hire can destroy a workplace culture in an amazingly short period of time. A negative person surrounded by good people will not be changed; a group of good people with a negative person in their midst will be! The more influential the negative person’s position the more dramatic and rapid the deterioration of the workplace will be.

Head Start programs are particularly vulnerable to this HR issue for several reasons:

  • There is little or no training available that provides the support and information needed to become good interviewers
    • Interviews for staff are frequently conducted by teams that are not professional HR personnel
    • Head Start has a high turn-over rate and is frequently engaged in the hiring process creating an exponentially greater chance of a mis-hire than in other professions
  • Head Start is in the business of capacity building and supporting the needs of a vulnerable population and the traits that are needed to succeed in those pursuits often make it challenging to terminate under-performing employees and negative employees in a timely way. Negative employees need swift consequences that administrators avoid delivering

Everyone has a bad day or even a down time in their careers and those staff need our compassion and support. It is critical that healthy organizations have naysayers and staff willing to challenge the status quo. Those employees strengthen an organization. I am referring to the employee whose presence eventually saps the workplace culture of its creativity, energy and vitality and ultimately creates a dynamic that prevents programs from achieving the goal of providing high quality services to children and families.

The negativity can take on many faces, some obvious and some so insidious that managers find themselves doubting themselves or finding it difficult to articulate the problems being created to prove the source of chronic issues and are frequently unable to document the behaviors and problems as they try to navigate the HR policies and regulations.

Staff find themselves shifting from collaboration to combat and begin to adopt some or all of the same negative behaviors.

“Incivility prevents people from thriving,” reports Gretchen Spreitzer in the January 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review. She continues…
“Those who have been the targets of bad behavior are often, in turn, uncivil themselves: They sabotage their peers. They “forget” to copy colleagues on memos. They spread gossip to deflect attention. Faced with incivility, employees are likely to narrow their focus to avoid risks — and lose opportunities to learn in the process.”

This can become so contagious that healthy, thriving, collaborative “think-tank’ organizational cultures where people find joy in their work and each other soon become depressing, sometimes overtly hostile environments where meetings are fractious and unproductive, once strong and vital employees feel isolated and disenfranchised, decision making becomes cumbersome and less democratic, risk-taking and creativity are reduced to near zero and the only one who enjoys the work place is the negative employee and her or his immediate direct reports (in management) or closest allies (in the classroom and line staff positions) who are the only beneficiaries of the now negative and unhealthy workplace. Good people begin to leave or at the very least disengage, it becomes harder to recruit and retain good staff and most importantly of all services to children and families suffers.

Ironically, and in this era of Designation and Renewal often fatally, outsiders perceive the negativity more accurately and more quickly than those within the organization who have become desensitized to the changed environment. During an OHS on-site review the perception, real or not, of an organization’s reluctance or inability to work collaboratively and integrate systems across the scope of Head Start services can lead to a program competing for funding!

In my recent past I worked closely with a company that was growing quickly as it expanded its scope and capacity, each high risk in terms of maintaining its incredible workplace culture. Every new hire without exception was  bright, creative and someone with authentic internal and external customer skills. I asked the owner how he accomplished this and he explained to me that he was confident that there were plenty of people with the technical skills required so, because he is so protective of his organizational culture, every applicant is required to be interviewed by five different teams with the goal to ensure the applicant is a fit with the company’s core values. The process is designed to identify highly competent people while at the same time weeding out the potential for contaminating the high functioning, highly creative workplace. It has certainly been working for him.

The Willow Tree team has had great success in partnering with programs and serving as a change agent but there are key steps that programs can take on their own: Hire smart, train well and include methods for supporting the transition into your workplace culture, observe, document and ruthlessly prune any employee that continues to pose a threat after you have invested in helping them change and always remember that the children are taking their cues from you… teach them joy!