The Mount Everest of the Managerial World?
Tearing your hair out over an employee or colleague who is
behaving as if they are in the sandpit rather than the
boardroom? Losing sleep over the resistance of a team to
working collectively? You're not alone. Poor employee
behaviours increase levels of anxiety in teams, reduce productivity
and can lead to entrenched difficulties engaging with management.
Research shows difficult employee behaviour has been noted as a
significant contributor to valued staff leaving organisations.
In addition, research also
shows that the biggest challenge faced by managers is understanding
and negotiating interpersonal relationships. We are not born
being effective managers of people. We learn what works, and
what doesn't, often through trial and error that frequently can
leave you as a manager feeling burned out and frustrated.
Instead of traversing the peaks and ravines of trial and error it
can be helpful for managers to learn to approach difficult employee
behaviours from a psychological perspective.
But what does this actually mean? Psychologists explain
different behaviours as occurring due to a set of cognitive and
behavioural circumstances in the person and the environment that
allow a behaviour to occur. When you have a good
understanding of what these are, your strategies for intervention
with difficult employee behaviours are much more likely to be
Why do employees behave badly?
It can be very frustrating, disruptive, and even hurtful when
employees start behaving in ways that we interpret as
unprofessional, obstructive or just plain nasty. However, it
can be helpful to think of the psychology of behaviour when
interpreting some difficult employee behaviours. Why?
Because when you know what the root cause of a behaviour is you are
more likely to adopt an informed, effective strategy to manage
it. And it can allow you to be more empathic to your employee
rather than personalising their behaviour as vindictive.
There are many reasons why an employee may not be behaving in the
way that you would like. Here are a few to consider:
- Humans tend to act differently in groups than in individual
settings. When humans get together as a group, there is a
decrease in their sense of individual responsibility and they can
become 'de-individualised.' This means individuals can
gravitate towards the dominant behaviour of a group, which may be
different to how they would behave as an individual. As humans we
have a strong desire to fit in social groups, which means
individuals can often conform to a group norm that is different to
their own view. In this process individuals can turn a blind eye to
behaviours that normally they would not accept or endorse.
- All behaviour serves a purpose and has a function.
Workplaces are a social microcosm of employees' relationships
outside of work. That is, as individuals start to become
comfortable in their work environment how they interact in the
workplace starts to reflect how they manage their personal
relationships. This can lead to dysfunctional behaviours
being replicated in the workplace.
- Some employees simply do not cope well with change. When
humans feel threatened (in the workplace this is often due to the
prospect of their environment changing) we see undesirable traits
and behaviours rushing to the surface as they try and cope (albeit
inappropriately) to the prospect of change.
What to do about it?
Most employees have the insight and professional courtesy to
realise what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour at
work. Some do not. Others can engage in inappropriate
behaviours when the 'pack mentality' or a group culture of poor
behaviour sets in. These difficult behaviours need to be
dealt with directly with the individual and the approach taken will
be dependent on the type and function of the behaviour.
Case Study: The Passive Aggressive
Cath managed a team of 8 employees. She started to notice
that one of her employees (let's call her Betty) was engaging in
covert undermining behaviours such as rolling her eyes at team
meetings when Cath talked about new initiatives. Cath decided
to broach the subject with Betty in her next individual performance
appraisal. Much to Cath's surprise, Betty became highly
indignant and told her that she was mistaken and being
paranoid. Cath was confused and even started to doubt
herself. She ended up apologising to Betty and wishing she
had never brought the subject up.
An entire article could be written about managing passive
aggressive behaviours! This case study nicely illustrates a
very common outcome when dealing with passive aggressive behaviours
- denial, and further passive aggressive resistance. Often,
people like Betty who use passive aggressive modes of communication
(i.e. communicating negative emotions through ambiguous,
undermining ways) have learned that this is an acceptable way to
behave. They may have had poor role models for being able to
assertively say what they really think.
As a manager, it is vital that you promote assertive
communication and highlight to your team that passive aggressive
behaviours are not healthy. Cath was helped to recognise that
the function of the Betty's behaviour was to create doubt
over Cath's leadership ability and decrease team motivation for the
new initiatives. It became a self fulfilling prophecy when
Cath did start to really doubt her own ability! Cath learned
ways to challenge her own unhelpful thinking when confronted by
passive aggressive behaviours and tried out new ways of
communicating assertively and immediately to her whole team that
these behaviours were not professional.
Like Cath, some managers become worried that by confronting a
behaviour they will be interpreted as aggressive. This was
the reason she chose to initially deal with Betty's behaviour
behind closed doors. The difficulty with this way is that the
lesson is not shared with the rest of the team, and the employee
has a better opportunity to deny the behaviour. Cath learned
that assertively highlighting a behaviour (without directly
confronting an individual) with the whole team was the most
effective way of extinguishing it.
At the next team meeting when she saw Betty roll her eyes she
said in a confident voice, "I'm noticing there is some eye rolling
going on. That's not the type of communication this team is
known for, and not something I believe we should be engaging
in. I'm all for healthy debate about these topics. What
are people's thoughts?" The eye rolling did not happen again!
What about Me?
As a manager, an important part of being effective, and dealing
with difficult behaviours, is managing yourself well. If you want
to reach that summit of effective management you need to establish
a good base camp. That is, challenging your own unhelpful
thinking patterns is a large part of effectively managing difficult
employee behaviours. These patterns are the thoughts you have
rushing through your head about yourself and your employees, which,
left unchecked and unchallenged, can make resolving difficult
behaviours in others even harder.
Let's look at a couple of common examples of thoughts about
difficult employee behaviour that lead to unhelpful emotions and
reactions in managers:
This is unfair, why can't I have a team of nice people?
The other team seem to all get along.
Ruminating about the unfairness of having to deal with
challenging employee behaviour, or comparing your team to a
seemingly well functioning team, is not helpful. It will
likely create envy and resentment, which won't be helpful emotions
for you as a manager long-term. Instead, acknowledge the fact
that you are having difficulty with some (not all) of your current
employees' behaviour and problem solve your way towards creating a
system that reinforces positive behaviours and assertively
confronts negative ones.
For example, take some time to understand why the employee is
behaving in a certain way, how they have learned that this is
something that works for them (why else do people continue with a
behaviour if it does not provide them with something in return?),
and seek assistance, if needed, to create a plan to help the
employee create an alternative way of acting.
I don't know what to do, this is making me look incompetent. If
I just ignore them they might go away.
It is so tempting to avoid doing something that is difficult!
Particularly if the difficult behaviour is falling just below your
tolerance threshold. However, it is useful to remember the
basic principles of behavioural learning here.
Reinforce/reward behaviours that you want to increase in your
employees, and give a clear negative consequence to behaviours you
want to decrease. It is important that your reinforcement is
consistent and immediate. Interestingly, research has shown humans
are more motivated by immediate reward (even if this is small) than
a large reward that is presented in the future. We know if
you ignore an undesirable behaviour (e.g. eye rolling in team
meetings) you are effectively sending a message that this behaviour
is acceptable and there are no negative consequences for its
3 key factors for managers to keep in mind
- Difficult employee behaviours are an expected part of our
professional life. They may occur at times when an individual
employee is trying to cope with an identified stress or when
employees find it difficult to manage or cope with changes in their
- Some difficult employee behaviours are pervasive across
settings and time. Employees with persistent behaviour
difficulties may repeatedly revert to these behaviours irrespective
of your attempts to manage them consistently. When this occurs, do
not be afraid to seek professional assistance in constructing a
plan to help you manage this type of employee;
- Part of effectively managing difficult employee behaviours is
being able to challenge your own unhelpful thinking patterns that
can lead to ineffective and unhelpful ways of dealing with the
difficult behaviours. This part you can control; and
specialist assistance can help you learn effective and helpful ways
of influencing your employees, your boss and yourself.
Climbing any mountain requires planning, skill and tenacity.
Managing difficult employee behaviour also requires these key
components. In addition, an effective and successful ascent also
needs guides and expert advice. It is these roles that Psychs In The City can provide to
managers facing the seemingly insurmountable.
the City Ltd are a specialist corporate psychology company that
offers solutions to corporate professionals throughout New Zealand
and Australia. They offer a one-day seminar focused on
assisting managers to understand difficult employee behaviours and
employ strategies that can get the most out of your team. They also
offer workshops and individual coaching on a range of issues that
are pertinent to corporate professionals, including conquering fear
of public speaking and stress management in the workplace.
You can visit their website or contact
Jane Freeman and Teresa Watson on 0800 PSYCHS or email