It’s a common story. One of your team members is being disruptive. Perhaps they are upsetting others within the team or elsewhere. Before long, people start to give you feedback about the behaviour issues they are observing.
So what do you do next?
Ignoring behaviour issues is rarely a good strategy as they may spiral out of control. You could instead deal out swift punishment to the “bad employee” to set an example.
But is it all their fault? Or were others involved? Did they react to other bad behaviour that was happening?
Behaviour issues are tricky and there is often no simple solution. In this post, I’ll walk through the steps to try to work through behaviour issues and come out in a positive place on the other side.
Some Examples of Behaviour Issues
As you might expect, behaviour issues can take many different forms.
Bullying, aggressive behaviour and harassment are some of the more nasty, overt behaviours. Some are more subtle, such as demonstrating passive-aggressive behaviour, spreading rumours or gossip, withholding information or excluding people from workplace activities. Note: Many of these are simply different forms of bullying.
Behaviour issues can also include actions or behaviour that stops your team from working effectively or causes adverse impacts to others in the team.
The spectrum of behaviour issues is broad, and you’ll likely need to deal with some in your leadership career.
Why Behaviour Issues Can Be So Tricky
Behaviour issues in the workplace can sometimes be hard to tackle.
Firstly, it can be difficult to see them for yourself. Some team members are on their best behaviour when the boss is around.
Or perhaps you’re seeing behaviour issues with your top performers. This may have you tempted to look the other way, because they are so important to the performance of your team.
Personal circumstances can also trigger behaviour issues. Someone who is cool, calm and collected may have an angry outburst at work when they are also going through a stressful divorce at home.
There are many factors that can cause behaviour issues, but solving them can be even trickier. The presence of strong workplace relationships and politics can hamper your efforts to improve the situation.
Behaviour issues may also be subjective, in the eye of the beholder. For example, some people may be fine with rough and tumble workplace banter, while others may take offence.
Some workplaces are filled with cursing, but in others this would not be considered acceptable. The different opinions of the people involved can complicate resolution of these situations.
Lastly, some behaviour issues run close to the border between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. When someone displays questionable behaviour some times and not others, leaders can be tempted to think that it was a “one-off situation”.
As you can see, behaviour issues can be complex and there are thousands of factors that may complicate each situation!
Related: The 5 Cs of Performance Management.
Should You Involve HR or Not?
Another aspect to consider is whether you should involve your Human Resources (HR) department when trying to tackle a behaviour issue.
For extremely serious issues that involve bullying or harassment, consulting HR is a good choice. They probably understand the policies and procedures better than you do and can help you navigate these tricky situations.
If you’re dealing with a unionised workforce HR can be your friend too. Particularly if a problematic team member is likely to raise issues of bullying for trying to address their behaviour issue.
However, in my experience, running to HR immediately is not a great idea for team performance issues or problems with team dynamics. While HR may be able to give you helpful advice, these issues are your domain and leaders need to be able to solve them.
If you’re in doubt about how serious your situation is, a chat with someone from your HR team can be valuable in working out your next step. Just be aware that involving your HR team has a tendency to signal to others that this is a big problem.
If people find out that you’re talking to HR about a particular team member, this can have the nasty side-effect of damaging their reputation and labelling them as a poor performer. Because of this, I will often try to work through the less serious issues myself, escalating to HR if I’m concerned that there is a potential for things to spiral out of control.
6 Steps to Help You Address Behaviour Issues In Your Team
Next, I want to outline some steps to take to work through the behaviour issues in your team. Following these steps will hopefully help you to understand more about the issues and work towards a resolution.
Sometimes, working through and resolving behaviour issues can take time, so don’t rush it!
1. Understand the Behaviour Issues and Limit the Impact
The first part of tackling a performance problem is to understand the situation and the impact that occurred. Then you need to take the necessary steps to limit the damage.
This starts with understanding who was involved (or observed the situation), what the behaviour was, when the problem occurred and what the consequences were.
Sometimes, behaviour issues are “easy”. For example, if someone physically attacks another team member in the workplace, this obviously isn’t acceptable. In most cases the person needs to be removed and will likely have their employment terminated.
However, most cases are not like this. Instead, they lie somewhere on the spectrum between unacceptable and acceptable behaviour.
You may need to take immediate steps to prevent further issues. This may mean separating coworkers or rearranging work in your team. Basically, you need to ensure that the impact of the issue has been limited, at least for the time being.
How to Understand the Situation
Often the best way to understand the situation is to speak to people. This means speaking to the person showing the bad behaviour, any observers, and the people who were impacted.
You may also need to look at electronic records such as emails, documents or system access logs. To gain access to this information, you might need to enlist the help of others.
It’s worth spending some time to gain an understanding of the situation, rather than jumping to conclusions. If you make assumptions and guess incorrectly, you may damage trust, relationships and your credibility.
2. Learn About the Context
Another important step to follow is to try to learn more about the context surrounding the poor behaviour.
Here are some example questions to get you started:
- Is this a one-off event? Or is it a recurring problem?
- Are there personal issues involved, or is it purely work-related?
- What are the personal circumstances of the person who acted badly? For example, are they under significant stress in or outside of work? Do they potentially have a mental health concern?
- Are there ulterior motives or politics at play? Do people who report the bad behaviour have malicious intent?
Context is very important here, because it can influence the solution you may choose to implement.
A one-off issue may simply be handled by providing feedback and monitoring the situation. A recurring problem may require a more structured approach.
The context is often best understood by having conversations with people who may be able to provide input on the issue in question
Of course, this includes the person who has been exhibiting the behaviour issue, because they know their own personal circumstances better than anyone else!
In some cases, you can’t believe everything you hear. I’ve worked in environments where some teams and managers attacked others to deflect attention from themselves.
You need to keep your wits about you, and prevent yourself from jumping to conclusions.
3. Engage with the Behaviour Issue
Once you’ve done some detective work and understood the situation, you need to start engaging with the behaviour. Note that to understand the context, you may already have been talking to the “trouble” team member in the previous steps… the conversations don’t just start here.
Keep a Positive Goal In Mind
When engaging with behaviour issues, some leaders start with a punitive mindset. In other words, they want to punish the person for the bad behaviour in some way.
However, in most situations I would think that the ideal outcome would be to resolve the problem constructively and have your team member working as a productive and valued member of the team.
Keeping a positive mindset and end goal will help you from slipping into punishment mode. You might consider discussing the desired positive outcome with your team member to set the scene.
SBI-BI Can Be a Useful Tool for Engaging With Problem Behaviour
An important step to take is to sit down and have a private conversation with your team member to actually engage in discussion about the problematic behaviour.
A good framework for having these conversations is the Situation-Behaviour-Impact-Alternative Behaviour-Alternative Impact tool (or SBI-BI). Essentially, you start with discussing the situation and highlighting the behaviour in question, and then discussing the impact and why this was an issue.
Don’t assume that your team member knows the impact. They may have acted without thinking, or be unaware of the problems that the behaviour caused. In some cases, highlighting this with them is enough to stop it from happening again.
The second part of SBI-BI is to identify an alternative behaviour that would have been preferred in the circumstances. Then, you should discuss the alternative impact (an improvement) that would likely have been the outcome.
You don’t need to tell your team member the answer. You should work through it with them and discuss options. Using this approach, you are coaching them to help them choose a better behaviour in the future, with the hope of avoiding further issues.
The key here is to bring the issue out in the open. In my experience, most team members don’t come to work looking for trouble or to make life unpleasant. Often you can reach constructive outcomes by engaging one to one on these problems.
4. Develop Solutions
The next important step is to try to develop some solutions to move forward. This will entirely depend on the situation and the impact of the behaviour issue.
Ideally, you should work with the team member directly to develop a plan. This can work very well when the team member has understood the impact of their actions and wants to improve.
Once again, it’s best to develop solutions with a positive end goal in mind. However, you do need to make sure that your team member knows that the current situation cannot continue, and that you need to work towards a solution.
If your team member is not playing along, then it may be time for tougher, less inclusive conversations. This could mean HR involvement and formal performance management activities.
Consider Tailoring Solutions Based on Personal Circumstances
In the previous steps, you’ve worked to understand the context and you may have become aware of personal circumstances that contributed to the issue. It’s important that you take the personal situation of your team member into account when discussing solutions.
For example, if your team member is affected by a physical or mental health issue that may have contributed to the situation, you need to keep this in mind. Perhaps they are having a tough time at home. All of these factors can contribute, so you need to be aware of them when developing options to move forward.
The best way to become aware of personal circumstances is to get to know your team members. You don’t need to be friends, but if you can build trust and confidence, they are more likely to open up to you about events in their life. When your team members are open with you, you have the best chance of creating solutions that will work for both parties.
Some Example Solutions to Behaviour Issues
Solutions to move forward from behaviour issues can be many and varied. Here are a handful of examples to consider:
- Changing team member roles, work allocation or responsibilities: Sometimes, adapting the work and team interactions can alleviate behaviour issues.
- Upskilling: Your team member may not have the right skills to perform their work, resulting in stress. This in turn causes disruptive behaviour and can impact the team. Coaching or training can help to improve their confidence and effectiveness.
- Flexible working: In some cases, personal circumstances can be a big factor in behaviour issues. Changing working hours or work locations may help to take some pressure off your team member.
- Time off: It might be that your team member needs a break to unwind. Often getting away from the work environment will reduce stress.
- Formal performance management: Sometimes you need a formal plan, where you document key outcomes that are required from your team member, usually as part of HR processes. While this can be unpleasant, sometimes it can have a positive effect.
I happen to know of a senior partner at a large international consulting firm that was once formally performance-managed early in his career. In this case, he told me that it gave him a bit of a “kick” to work on the problem and he went upwards from there.
- Firing: Sometimes, the solution will be that the person needs to be removed from the workplace. This is usually the method of last resort, and is not always a good outcome for anybody.
Develop and Document a Plan to Move Forward
Once you have worked out a solution, it’s time to document it and decide how you’ll monitor progress. This might be as simple as sending an email describing the approach you have agreed.
It is important to put your plan and monitoring approach in writing, in case of disagreement down the track. This way, expectations are clear and everyone is on the same page.
Documentation Can Be Very Helpful for the Worst Behaviour Issues
If you’re dealing with a particularly tricky case where you think there’s a chance you’ll need legal assistance or HR help, documenting your progress and actions can be very important.
Otherwise, you might just get into a “he said vs. she said” battle where it’s just your word against someone else’s. To help with this, you might consider keeping records about:
- The issue that occurred and the people involved
- Any steps you’ve taken to address the problem
- Conversations you’ve had with the team member
- The plan and monitoring approach to move forward.
The more trust you have in your team member (and vice versa), the less likely it is you’ll need this information. But if you are concerned that the problem may escalate and you could be accused of misconduct, keeping records and making HR aware of them can be a good step to reduce the risk.
5. Align Your Key Stakeholders
One of the most important steps in managing behaviour issues is making sure that you are aligned with key people in your workplace. This means that everyone understands that the issue needs to be resolved and are aware of the approach to managing it.
I have seen many instances of leaders being unable to address performance or behaviour issues because others weren’t “on the same page”.
Here’s an example of a real-life situation that my former colleague Sandra (not her real name) had to deal with:
Sandra was experiencing behaviour issues in her team from one particular person. She tried hard to address the problem and worked closely with the team member to put an improvement plan in place.
The complication here was that this team member had a strong relationship with Sandra’s boss. As a result, he resisted any attempt to help manage the team member. In summary, Sandra wanted to fix the issue, and her boss didn’t back her up.
Because Sandra’s boss didn’t agree, the issues remained and caused long-term damage to the team’s performance and productivity. The performance issue didn’t really bother the boss, so he didn’t feel compelled to support Sandra’s efforts.
I have seen this situation over and over again in many workplaces. You need to understand your key stakeholders and gain alignment to be able to manage behaviour issues.
How to Align Your Key Stakeholders
Firstly, you need to understand who needs to be involved. This could be other managers who interact closely with your team member, or your own boss.
If you have a boss who likes to know about any issues in your team, then they are a key stakeholder. If they leave you alone to sort problems out for yourself, they may be less important.
However, if you think that managing the behaviour issue could cause disruption, it’s safer if you let your boss know what the situation is. If you have other management colleagues who see your team member in action, you might let them know the situation too. They may be able to help you monitor the progress of your team member.
You certainly don’t want everyone in your organisation to know about the performance issue. This isn’t really fair on your team member. However, if you need other colleagues or your boss to help you manage it, then it’s critical that you get them on board.
Sit down with your key stakeholders to explain the situation and the plan to improve. Then make it clear what you expect of them to support you in managing the issue.
You should also be clear about the impact that the issue is having. If you can create a compelling “What’s in it for me?” for these stakeholders, they’ll be more likely to help you!
If you can’t get the right people on board, then you’ll have a tough time managing the issue.
Related: Podcast Episode: How Team Alignment Will Help You Get On (and Stay On) the Right Track.
6. Monitor and Correct
If you’ve made it through all these steps, then you’re almost there!
However, we can’t expect that our performance issues will immediately be resolved. It may take time and some course-correction along the way. That’s why it’s important to set up the foundation for this to occur.
This might mean having regular check-ins with your team member to assess progress. These might be informal coffee meetings to see how they are feeling since the incident. This may also mean asking for feedback from other trusted colleagues to get their opinion on whether your improvement approach is working.
The key here is that you have some mechanism in place to see the team member’s progress, or lack of it. This way, you can keep engaging with the problem while it still exists. Once you see enough progress, you can ease your approach and hopefully the issue will be resolved once and for all.
If you aren’t seeing improvement, you may need to increase the focus on the issue and come up with a more formal approach to managing it.
Solving behaviour issues can be complex. They have the potential to damage team performance, productivity and working relationships. However, behaviour issues should not always be HR problems.
As leaders, we often have the opportunity to deal with behaviour issues before they become huge performance problems. Just realise that if you are seeing performance or behaviour issues in your team, you aren’t alone!
This is one of the most common leadership challenges we all face. Use these steps and help your team members be the best they can be!
How do you manage behaviour issues? Are there any extra steps you take? Let us know in the comments below or in the Thoughtful Leader forum!