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Six Tips for Confronting Bad Workplace Behaviors

It is a fact of organizational life – negative, unacceptable behaviors will happen.
When they do, the leader must address them.

I normally emphasize the benefits of encouraging positive, productive behaviors over punishing negative ones. However, my clients and seminar participants often ask questions like:

  • “What about team members who don’t want to play nice?” or
  • “What if I can’t find anything positive to reinforce?”

The short answer is this: “Confront negative behaviors early and decisively.”

When you fail to confront negative behaviors, you subtly signal acceptance of them. In effect, you encourage them to continue. As Admiral William F. Halsey said, “All problems become smaller if you don’t dodge them, but confront them.”

Personally, I prefer encouraging people to disciplining them. Encouragement is more comfortable to me – therein lays the problem. Encouragement is more comfortable to me. Any time I act out of personal comfort rather than appropriateness of response, I fail in my leadership role.

For about 10 or 20 per cent of the population, confronting problem behaviors is a no-brainer. These people are comfortable with confrontation. They do it naturally. However, the rest of us feel some stress and discomfort in a conflict situation.

My desire for peace and harmony sometimes stops me from quickly confronting negative behaviors. The paradox is this. As the leader of a team, if I do not address negative behaviors, I will get more of them. And, in the end, I will have less peace and harmony. In order to get what I do want, I have to do what I do not want to do.

Most people have a list of negative behaviors they have seen in the workplace. Here is a partial list of some behaviors/issues I have had to address:

  • Interrupting meetings
  • Supervisors treating employees poorly
  • Employees verbally attacking each other
  • Extreme body odor
  • Lack of attention in meetings
  • Too many personal phone calls at work
  • And many others.

For people who, like me, would rather avoid a confrontation, I offer these suggestions to ease the stress:

Be prepared

Pre-plan what you intend to say. In most situations, I don’t suggest that you read a prepared statement. However, you should be prepared.

Be brief

Get to the point quickly, and stay on topic. You will find it easier to be brief if you prepare in advance.

Be specific

Make sure you speak about specific behaviors – not your interpretations.

Here are some examples:

  • Rude, inconsiderate, disrespectful, arrogant, obnoxious, flighty, unfocused, smart aleck, and pushy are interpretations.
  • Interrupting, rolling eyes, speaking loudly (or softly), shrugging shoulders, looking away, walking away, and tone of voice are specific behaviors.

Explain the impact

Tell the person how other people perceive their behavior or how it affects team performance.

State the desired alternative – Go beyond a description of the negative behavior to describe what you expect in the future. By stating the desired positive behavior, you can use positive reinforcement rather than punishment to drive performance in the future.

Stay calm

The behavior may frustrate you, but now is not the time to vent. You want them to focus on your message and their behavior, not your frustration or anger.

By failing to address problem behaviors, leaders get more of them. As noted behavioral analyst Aubrey Daniels said, “Problems in the workplace are often created not by what we do, but by what we fail to do.”

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