Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

When expertise becomes an enemy of quality service 4 – interpersonal skills and the challenge of problem behavior in the workplace 2

Posted in career development, HR and personnel, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on October 21, 2015

This is my fourth installment to a series on expertise, and on what an employee or manager needs to bring along with it, if it is to offer real value and either to themselves or to the business they work for (see my supplemental postings section at the end of Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3, postings 69 and following, for Parts 1-3.)

I began discussing the challenges of weak interpersonal skills, and of working with disruptive and problematical people in what should be a more professional setting, in Part 3. And at the end of that posting, I said that I would offer at least a brief orienting set of pointers as to how to deal with these people, so as to limit their more toxically disruptive behavior and its impact. I will offer that, but note in anticipation of it, that this is a context where outside professional help might be needed, and even overt intervention.

This type of assistance is probably not going to be necessary, if a disruptive employee or colleague is only that – annoying and disruptive and challenging to morale and productivity because of that, but not directly threatening. But it is always important to at least consider whether some form of arbitration might be needed, and particularly if a disinterested third party with expertise in reducing tensions might be able to help to resolve issues between employees who are in conflict.

It becomes immediately and overtly necessary to bring in outside professional help if a disruptively problematical coworker poses an overt physical threat – or where a prudent person would see cause for concern that they might.

So I offer this posting with the problem behavior employee in mind who is disruptive in their behavior but who does not pose a threat of violence. If you see cause for concern that the conflict that a disruptive employee creates, might escalate in that direction, seek outside help and as quickly as possible, only using the types of approaches that I would offer here to attempt to tamp down emotion driven behavior in the immediate here and now, and for more routine personnel challenges.

With that caveat to this posting noted, I turn to the issues of dealing with people in the workplace who are prone to show behavioral problems and who are disruptive as a result.

1. Be professional in your dealings with all of your colleagues. Do not enter into cliques and do not put yourself in a position where you would come across as being biased when you do have to deal with others. And if you are a manager, be fair and impartial in dealing with the people who report to you and do not play favorites. Think of this as setting yourself up for success, for when problems of the type I write of here arise and for when dealing with interpersonal conflicts in general. Cultivate a reputation for being open, professional and fair.
2. Do not become emotionally caught up yourself, in what is going on when a problem does overtly arise. Be the center of calm where others might be upset and acting out, and they will be more inclined to listen to you in ways that they might not listen to each other, and particularly if they are in immediate conflict with each other. This, I add is particularly important if you, yourself are upset or angry at what is happening. Set that aside and seek to calm matters down. Address the issues only, and do so from as calm a perspective and with as calm a demeanor as you can manage.
3. Shift from simply reacting to the crisis of the moment, to seeking out a proactive and forward-thinking resolution to crisis-creating patterns. You might be facing a specific here-and-now challenge and you do need to address that when one arises. But do so in terms of forestalling or at least limiting the impact of the next workplace crisis too. If you take this approach and seek to address and resolve more underlying issues, that will help you to more effectively address the current, immediate crisis, by putting it into a larger perspective that can be worked on. And if you pursue this approach before a crisis can fully erupt too, you might be able to limit its occurrence and impact.
4. Be selective in where and I add how you confront and challenge, when you do have to step in to resolve an interpersonal dispute or conflict. Only do so for the larger and more significant issues and focus on deflecting and limiting problem situations if you have to address them at all, for the little stuff. This is important; this is about having and maintaining credibility for when you really do have to step in and confront a problem head-on. This helps you establish that you prioritize problems and that you understand scales of significance for them. This shows that you are willing to let others resolve their own problems by themselves when and where they can.
5. Deal with, and seek to resolve specific problems and issues, and do not make them all about the people involved. Even good people can come into disagreement and even genuine conflict. Misunderstandings can happen and tight deadlines and other challenges can occasionally lead to disagreements and discord. Do not make the mistake of seeming to demonize anyone, as personal attacks can only accomplish one result – block any possible favorable resolution by backing at least one of the participants in a problem into a corner and giving them no face-saving way out.
6. If you are dealing with a hostile or aggressive coworker or employee, keep the focus on what they have done, and on its consequences. As I just noted above, this does not mean demonizing them, but it does mean they’re not being allowed to simply change the topic or justify their behavior as a resolution to the problem at hand. Meet with them separately if you have to rebuke them, so they do not lose face. And acknowledge where they have legitimate concerns or grievances. Sometimes people show rude or disruptive behavior because they feel, and even legitimately so, that they themselves have been wronged in some way. Acknowledge that and help them to resolve those issues too.
7. Use humor if appropriate. Seek to diffuse the tension.
8. Take the initiative and be willing to lead the way out of a difficulty. The types of problems that I write of here will not in most cases simply go away on their own. Be willing to actively address them and take the lead in doing so.
9. In keeping with that point, be willing to confront bad behavior and to hold individuals who display it, accountable. But as also noted above, be willing to work with people who find themselves creating a conflict, to help them to make that a one-time only event – and certainly where that would be a realistic possibility.
10. And think and act in terms of consequences when dealing with overt here-and-now problems and crises. Think through what is happening and what would follow from that if nothing were done to resolve matters. And think through the consequences and outcomes for this, assuming that you and the people involved have worked to defuse this problem more peacefully. Seek to make these two alternatives clear to all involved, and seek to convince all involved parties that a more peaceful and mutually agreeable resolution to this challenge would be better for them as a group, and for them all individually too.
11. Up to here, this set of pointers deals for the most part with the immediate crisis when bad behavior has caused immediate here and now disruption. After everyone has calmed down, meet with them separately: the problem behavior participant involved, and those they have acted out towards who might very well have displayed at least some problematical behavior too, in response. And talk them through what happened with a goal of resolving underlying problems.
12. If need be, and if both appropriate and possible, move people who simply cannot get along away from each other so they do not have as much opportunity to get into confrontations with each other. Seek to in effect build a safe distance barrier to prevent recurrences.
13. Document everything and while it is fresh in your mind for its details, and share this with Human Resources. Turn to that service within your business as a helpful resource and certainly if one or more individuals who you have to deal with, reach a level of problematical behavior as to call for outside help. That can of course mean severity of behavior at specific events and in specific instances, but recurrence of problem behavior that is not stopped by an offending employee can trigger need for this too.
14. And deal directly with specific problem employees as necessary, and certainly if their problem behavior keeps erupting in spite of immediate situation, by immediate situation resolution efforts. And cite your documented repeated efforts to resolve problem break-outs as justification if this means a demotion or firing.

None of the above is particularly original. Some of the key points that I have just raised, in fact apply to essentially any negotiations, and I cite the need to stay objective and to set aside personal emotional involvement as a specific case in point example of that. But the fact that others have found and used the same basic approach, and key elements of it, and both in dealing with problem behavior and in wider contexts shows that it can offer at least a measure of value. And I repeat from above: if pursuing this approach or one similar to it doe not work for you when dealing with a specific problem employee, and particularly if you come to believe that that individual does raise specific risk of violence from their acting out, seek outside professional help, and quickly.

How can you tell? That is not always easy, but there are some lines that simple problem behavior cannot cross without requiring outside help and a stronger response.

• Is this just verbal or is there a physical element to this behavior? If this is still a conflict of words, have one or more involved parties in some way threatened to physically act out as a conflict escalation?

If problem behavior is, or likely to become physical, and not just remain a war of words, you need outside help and support, and right away. And I end this discussion with that point and by noting that not all problems can be fixed, even if many, and even most can be.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment, where I will address the issues of helping employees with more technical and skills-based expertise but who lack interpersonal skills, to more fully live up to their potential as effective team members and employees. Good employees with real potential can be developed into great employees, and that is a central area of focus for this series, that I start turning towards next. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 (with this included as a supplemental posting there) and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.

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