2010


Disruptive Behavior: Attach Unpleasant Consequences

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Attaching unpleasant consequences to unpleasant behavior is unpleasant for the leader who attaches them. No one enjoys confronting a colleague, even one who has behaved badly. And colleagues who have behaved badly in the past are likely to behave badly again. Leaders are tempted to put the whole unpleasant mess out of their minds. Moreover, leaders are always amazed at the reluctance of victims to stand up for themselves and document exactly what happened. People are eager to complain, but they are hesitant to do anything more than that.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

People who misbehave in the workplace are defective. They have failed to develop the internal controls that normal people acquire. They require adult supervision. Failure to attach unpleasant consequences when they vent their immature spleens invites them to behave even worse the next time they are  annoyed. And your colleagues are watching you closely. If you fail to respond appropriately your credibility as a leader will suffer.

How can you do it?

1. Complete your investigation promptly. Talk to everyone who was present and obtain the dispassionate documentation that will enable you to hold the perpetrator accountable.

2. Confront the accused with the evidence promptly. It is only fair that she be able to see and challenge others’ accounts of what happened. If the documentation is detailed, objective and complete that compelling evidence will trigger unpleasant shame and embarrassment.

3. Place the investigation and your conclusion in a permanent file. Be sure to include the accused person’s comments. His rebuttal will demonstrate his innocence and support your conclusion that no inappropriate behavior occurred on those rare occasions when a colleague just overreacts. Most of the time, his weak, defensive excuses will confirm his quilt and unreasonableness. Rarely, those who misbehave will take full responsibility, apologize and make amends. While this is temporarily unpleasant for the wrongdoer, it is the best possible outcome after an outburst has occurred.

4. When a pattern of misbehavior is evident, take the appropriate administrative action. This may include removing your colleague from the organization. Capable leaders do not permit disruptive people to poison the atmosphere for everyone else. When the best employees conclude that bad behavior will not result in adverse consequences for the tyrant, they will leave for greener employment pastures.

How do you attach unpleasant consequences to disruptive behavior in your organization?

Disruptive Behavior: Respond Quickly but Deliberately

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Once the disruptive tempest subsides, you will be inclined to do nothing, to pretend to yourself and others that it never happened. If it is hard to tolerate temper tantrums, it is even harder to respond to them appropriately. Interviewing witnesses, accepting their feelings and challenging their unrealistic expectations consumes energy you would rather spend doing less unpleasant things. And confronting the perpetrators and listening dispassionately to their ridiculous rationalizations is never easy.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Disruptive behavior should trigger appropriate consequences. Doing nothing and hoping that another such outburst will never occur sends exactly the wrong signal to everyone. Being passive suggests the tantrum was justified. It lowers the bar for such behavior in the future and invites other immature brats to behave in the same way. Likewise, an impulsive and angry response by the leader invites a credible challenge from the bad actor, and successfully shifts the attention from the bad behavior to the bad leadership response. 

How can you do it?

1. Launch a formal investigation right away. Notify everyone involved that you will be talking with them. Complete your investigation as soon as the initial wave of feelings has crested. Your deliberate approach will create a helpful sense of foreboding and reflection.

2. Produce careful documentation. Invite the bystanders to write down what they observed. Many will be hesitant to do that. If they hesitate, interview them with a witness and record what they say.

3. Present the accused with the documentation and invite her response. It is only fair that the accused should have a chance to respond to you, but do not allow her to badger the witnesses or to intimate them into changing their stories.

4. Make a decision and announce it to everyone. Your conclusion and your documentation of it in the misbehaver’s personnel file will attach a significant unpleasant consequence to her outburst. Depending on the severity of the infraction, additional administrative punishment may be warranted.

5. Welcome an appeal. This step helps to assure fairness and dispassionate reflection. It also legitimizes the investigation process and identifies opportunities for improvement. Do not permit appeals to go on forever. This flaw delays a final resolution  and provides the opportunity for a wimpy leader far removed to cravenly conclude that what happened wasn’t that big a deal after all.

How do you respond when disruptive behavior occurs in your organization?

Disruptive Behavior: Manage the Outburst

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

People in the middle of a meltdown are not reasonable. Their feelings are all that matter to them. They intend to vent their spleens no matter what the consequences to others, and they intend to do it here and now. Spoiled children of all ages are indifferent to the needs of others. They just want their way. They don’t want to be challenged or contained.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

The longer these outbursts continue the more irreparable damage results. Victims and bystanders find such intentional attacks expecially hurtful, and they will not recover from these painful wounds quickly. The emotional scars will last even longer. And if leaders passively stand by and let these outbreaks run their course, those affected will feel both helpless and resentful. Allowing tantrums run their course in the workplace only encourages the tyrants.

How can you do it?

1. Invite the troublemaker off stage. Invite the angry colleague to join you in a private office to discuss the matter further. Point out that this is not the best place to express such feelings.

2. Challenge the tyrant to control himself. Saying, “Please calm yourself  NOW,” will give sufficient notice to some firebrands that their behavior is inappropriate and, if not quickly smothered, will result in unpleasant consequences.

3. Call for backup. Most bullies are reluctant to show themselves when the boss is around. If the most appropriate boss is not available, any boss with do in a pinch. If the person throwing the tantrum is the boss, call  a bigger boss. If you feel threatened, call security.

4. Begin taking notes. This action will surprise the tormentors. They expect those nearby to be intimidated, to cower and to feel that they have done something to justify the tantrum. The unexpected presence of an objective note taker who is documenting the unacceptable behavior confirms that the situation has just changed. The power has shifted from the provocateur to the observer. The bad actor is now being held accountable.

5. Pointedly ask witnesses to pay attention to what is happening. This is another way of dramatically shifting the balance of power away from the person throwing a fit. The hapless bystanders have now become witnesses. That realization will deny many emotional fires the oxygen they need to keep burning.

How do you manage temper tantrums in your workplace?

Disruptive Behavior: Prevent Disruptive Behavior

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

While it is not possible to entirely prevent disruptive behavior in the workplace, it is possible to create an organizational culture that strongly discourages it. Creating and sustaining such a culture requires leaders to invest a lot of energy in this issue over many years. It is not possible to build such a culture when leaders turn over every three years. As new leaders join the organization, many of them will have come from companies where important people are expected to throw their weight around. And if senior leaders are bullies themselves—and there are a lot of executive bullies in the world—they are not going to be passionate about creating bullying-free organizational cultures.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

There is always an executive around who understands the damage that disruptive behavior causes. That executive must take a stand. If any leader makes a compelling case and drafts a reasonable process, even the most derelict senior leaders will be forced to go along out of the fear of appearing completely stupid. It is not possible to make a reasonable case that allowing disruptive behavior to occur without consequences is best for any organization. It is always best if the entire senior leadership group is united in these matters, but it is not essential. You can persuade your wimpy executives to do the right thing, and you must.

How can you do it?

1. Address the issue during recruitment, when the offer is made and again during orientation. Make this a part of the pre-application process for every position in the organization.

2. Require each employee to agree to abide by your organization’s Code of Conduct. Insist on a signed acknowledgement that they have read the document, that they understand it and that they agree to behave accordingly.

3. Confront those who misbehave immediately. Don’t let these issues fester. Follow up on complaints quickly. Remind the offender of his prior commitment. Begin documenting his disruptive behavior and advise him that further outbursts will trigger unpleasant consequences.

4. Require your senior leaders to walk the talk. Only the board can deal effectively with a disruptive CEO. Given that most board members are primarily interested in keeping their seats and therefore disinclined to rock the CEO’s boat, reluctant trustees must sometimes be goaded into doing their jobs with evidence that cannot be ignored.

What do you do to prevent disruptive behavior in your work environment?

Disruptive Behavior: Pay Special Attention to Bullying

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

No leader wants to admit that she has a bullying problem. Since bullies are cowards by nature, they almost never bully others when leaders are around. This means that most descriptions of bullying behavior come second hand. This raises all the thorny issues of what really happened, what was meant and what was perceived. Excessive sensitivity does exist and overreactions are fairly common too. False accusations do occur. No leader leaves for work hoping to confront a bully later in the day.

Why should you do it anyway?

The real bullies are not hard to identify. Everyone knows who they are. They engage in a pattern of bullying behavior and sooner or later there will always be witnesses. The aggravation involved in investigating complaints, identifying bullies and standing up to them is much less than the damage these predators will do to morale if you allow them to prey on the vulnerable people in your organization.

How can you do it?

1. Admit that bullying is a problem in most organizations. The data about the extent of the bullying problem in our workplaces and the damage it causes are clear. Share that data with your colleagues.

2. Give some examples of what bullying is and is not. Bullying is intimidating behavior intended to demean or embarrass the victim. Disagreeing respectfully is not bullying. Standing up for oneself is not bullying. Stating one’s position good naturedly and clarifying one’s expectations are not bullying.

3. Emphasize that bullying is not acceptable. Just making it clear that you will not tolerate  intimidation in the workplace will go a long way toward addressing this problem.

4. Agree that standing up to bullies is not easy. You must accept others’ feelings if you hope to persuade them. People hate conflict. People feel that complaining about bullies will only make matters worse. People fear that even if they complain their leaders will do nothing. Acknowledge and accept the reasonableness of these feelings.

5. Explain how you will handle complaints about bullies. Go over the investigation and follow up process. Explain what you will and will not make public. Make it clear that, except in extreme situations, you will give bullies the opportunity to improve their behavior.

6. Follow through. Do what you say you will do. Do it when you say you will.

How do you deal with bullies in your workplace?

Disruptive Behavior: Prepare Potential Victims

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

We all want our work environments to be pleasant and wholesome places. We like to think we are all adults and that we will conduct ourselves accordingly. We expect people to be straightforward, cooperative and unfailingly gracious. We don’t want to believe that there are monsters among us. We are genuinely surprised when unpleasantness erupts. When the crisis passes, we foolishly tell ourselves nothing like that will ever happen again. We fail to learn and prepare.

Why should you do it anyway?

Your colleagues will cope better with disruptive behavior if you have prepared them beforehand. Ask your coworkers whether they can predict the people they work with—who will be late, on time, pleasant or sullen. They will suddenly realize they they are already experts in predicting human behavior.  Use that insight to remind them that, while they cannot control others’ behavior, they can predict and manage bad behavior. This realization will diminish their sense of shock and helplessness when the inevitable outbursts occur.

How can you do it?

1. Predict it. You can be sure that disruptive behavior will occur. You can predict who will behave badly. You know these people. You cannot predict when the next outburst will occur, but an unusually nasty mood is a good indication that the sourpuss may blow today.

2. Remind your colleagues how you want them to respond. Instruct them to calm themselves first. Ask them to take notes. Urge them to move the conflict offstage if possible. Suggest that they seek out other witnesses or a supervisor if available.

3. Use others’ nasty moods to remind coworkers that an eruption may be coming. Review emotional emergency management procedures. Use role play to prepare inexperienced colleagues about how to react.

How do you prepare potential victims?

Disruptive Behavior: Comfort the Victims

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

After people have been yelled at, demeaned, or falsely accused they are not immediately consolable. When the disruptive person is someone in authority, the victims are not only angry but frightened. They often feel their jobs are in jeopardy. The more they reflect on what just happened, the more upset they become. They understandably blame not just the perpetrator but also the leaders who permit these outbursts. If such tantrums are routinely tolerated without clear consequences, the victims feel helpless and hopeless as well. They may conclude that they are at fault or that they deserved what they got. People who have just been abused are not reasonable. They are not particularly appreciative of those who first try to help.

Why should you do it anyway?

The sooner you contain the damage from a bully’s outburst, the fewer repairs you will have to make. If you fail to respond quickly and respectfully, the victims will talk to others who will listen, exaggerate the story and pass it on. Now the problem will not just be what happened but the fact that management won’t do anything about it. Emotional outbursts in the workplace are best managed in the same way as auto accidents. The first responders’ efforts to stabilize the injured are the keys to success.

How can you do it?

1. Listen. Pay attention to their initial description of what happened. Take notes. Ask clarifying questions when they are finished. Take care not to be defensive. The victims may not have behaved perfectly in this exchange either, but leave that for later.

2. Apologize. Tell them you are sorry this happened and that it affected them the way it did. And mean it.

3. Accept their feelings. They have every right to feel the way they do. Emphasize that if you were in their shoes you would feel the same way. You would.

4. Explain what will happen next. Outline the steps in the investigation that will follow. Find out who else was involved. Make a commitment to talk with the bad actor promptly. Explain whom you will report your conclusions and recommendations to and when they will respond.

5. Invite them to participate in the investigation that will commence immediately. Ask them to write down exactly what happened and how they felt about it. Ask them to complete this important assignment as soon as possible. Remind them that their memory will fade quickly.

How do you comfort the victims of disruptive behavior in your organization?

Disruptive Behavior: Explain the Causes

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Most leaders dread the “Why” question. They suspect that their colleagues are looking for a way to understand and excuse bad behavior. They know that the reason usually doesn’t matter. Those who are disruptive always have an explanation for why they behave the way they do. Their behavior is always someone else’s fault. The folk who have to put up with their outrageous behavior and ridiculous excuses actually start to believe their nonsense. “He had every right to be upset. I would be upset too.” Such parroting of the bully’s twisted reasoning confirms the responsible leader’s worse fears. The hens have accepted fox logic.

Why should you do it anyway?

But people are not going to stop asking, “Why,” until you answer them. You might as well get it out of the way. Here’s why jerks behave the way they do. They feel inferior and act this way in a pathological attempt to feel special. They have seen others get away with abusive behavior and they think they can too. They are emotionally impaired, immature and lacking in character and self discipline. In an attempt to rid themselves of their sense of impotence, they abuse what little power they have. Self-centered in the extreme, they believe others exist to meet their needs, to make them happy and successful and to insulate them from the aggravations of everyday life. There. That’s why.

How can you do it?

1. Go ahead and explain why disruptive people behave the way they do. Once you explain it, people will get it. And they will immediately realize that jerks have no good reason for behaving the way they do. They are just inferior human beings.

2. Once you have explained their behavior, take pains to explain that why people behave like they do is beside the point. It’s the behavior not the motive that is the issue. We all get aggravated. We all have bad days. We all deal with surly colleagues, slackers and incompetent folks who could care less. The difference is, mature people remain calm and respectful and cope without throwing temper tantrums.

3. Caution everyone about the tendency to accept hissy fits as normal or justified. They happen, but they are never normal, and they are never justified.

How do you explain the causes of disruptive behavior in your organization?

Disruptive Behavior: Require Dispassionate Documentation

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why is this hard to do?

Immediately following a disruptive outburst, victims are understandably hot. When they first document what happened, they typically include a lot of their feelings. They make judgments. They use colorful, presumptuous language. They speculate about the perpetrator’s motives. They draw conclusions and indulge in editorial comments. In short, their judgmental observations invite distracting debate and raise questions about their own credibility as witnesses.

Why should you do it anyway?

It is important to accept their feelings. Their first drafts have some value as they struggle to deal with their strong feelings of having been wronged. But they must keep rewriting their accounts until they have produced a “police report” that focuses exclusively on observed behavior and avoids any speculation about motive whatsoever.

How can you do it?

1. Ask the witnesses to independently document what happened as soon as possible after the outburst occurs. Our memories are notoriously unreliable as time passes. When we listen to others, we become convinced that what we heard really happened. Such distortion is worsened by emotional arousal.

2. Invite them to use the first draft to express their feelings. There is no need to hold back anything in the initial version. They should not worry about language, spelling, grammar or whether it might offend others. The point is to recall what happened and to recognize, accept and express their feelings about the incident.

3. Ask them to show their early drafts to no one but you. Valuable as these verbal diatribes can be, they can be disastrous if shown to others. Furious writers will come to regret what they said or the ways they said it when they have calmed down. If their ranting is already in the public domain, they will be held accountable. Their ventilation may even let the abuser off the hook entirely. 

4. Inform them that several drafts will probably be needed. This is expected. Few of us can be indifferent when we are upset. Detachment takes some time. There is no need to feel guilty about this.

5. Explain why the dispassionate “police report” is the only documentation that will allow you to deal effectively with the disruptive behavior. This dispassionate report will focus the investigation entirely on the abusive behavior without introducing distracting digressions about exactly what happened or why it happened.

How do you create the dispassionate reports that enable you to focus entirely on disruptive behavior?

Disruptive Behavior: Beware Excessive Sensitivity

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why is this hard to do?

When leaders finally decide to stand up to the jerks that are disrupting their organizations, a related problem will emerge. Those who have been victimized and those who get their feelings hurt easily will see an opportunity for revenge. They will start to complain about minor infractions and file complaints every time someone hurts their feelings. These overreactions are hard to manage. You must accept hurt feelings, but you must not allow whiners and career complainers to hold everyone else hostage. Leaders longing for a rules-based, discretion-free approach will lobby to handle every complaint of disruptive behavior exactly the same way. It is easy to fall for this misguided legalism.

Why should you do it anyway?

All complaints fall into one of three categories: One, disruptive behavior clearly occurred. Any reasonable person would agree. Two, the person who was hurt clearly overreacted. No one behaved disruptively. Three, the incident falls into a gray zone between the two extremes. Both parties in these tiffs contributed to the problem and both must accept some accountability for what transpired.

How can you do it?

1. Acknowledge that excessive sensitivity is sometimes a problem. Don’t fall into the trap of excusing bad behavior by suggesting that everybody should just toughen up, but don’t let whiners off the hook either. Human nature being what it is, people are going to complain even when they really have nothing significant to complain about.

2. Give specific examples. Refusal to engage in mindless banter while concentrating on an important project is not abusive behavior. Neglecting to return a routine greeting while distracted may offend the thin skinned, but it is not an offence justifying a complaint. Stating one’s position—even if unpopular—is never inappropriate if delivered good naturedly. Disagreement with authority and pointed questioning of the conventional wisdom are encouraging signs of engagement, not evidence of troublemaking.

3. Rely on the reasonable folk to help you tell the difference. The only real hope we have of getting along and working productively together with all of our differences is to achieve some consensus about which behaviors do and do not fall into that elastic range we think of as normal. There are opinion leaders in every group known for their wisdom, maturity and fearless truth telling. Take advantage of their gifts. Invite them to share their perceptions and recommendations.

How do you deal with excessive sensitivity in your workplace?