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Enabling Bad Behaviour - Main

Ever wondered why your team members keep behaving badly?

You might feel like you’re doing everything right, but the situation simply isn’t improving. Sometimes, we might even enable bad behaviour without realising it.

In this post, I’m going to take a look at some of the possibly not-so-obvious ways that leaders might enable bad behaviour, so you can see if it might be happening in your team.

And of course along the way, I’ll cover some ideas on how we might put a stop to it.

What Do We Mean By Bad Behaviour?

Bad behaviour is obviously a broad term.

It might be about taking obvious negative actions, like shouting at people or criticising them.

Or, it might be more subtle, such as not responding quickly to emails, excluding other team members or taking up too much of your time.

The possibilities are endless, but ultimately bad behaviour includes any actions that you don’t want your people to be taking.

Learn More:  Got a Bad Employee? The Reason Might Not Be So Obvious.

How Leaders Enable Bad Behaviour (sometimes without realising it)

Leading a team can be pretty difficult, and it’s hard to get everything right, all the time.

Even so, we should be looking for ways to reduce the chances of bad behaviour – and definitely not enabling it.

So now let’s look at a few ways that leaders might be subtly enabling bad behaviour … even if they don’t even realise it!

1. Being Unavailable

The first enabler is a common issue for many leaders.

Not because they don’t care about their team, but usually because leadership roles can get pretty busy. You might find yourself in constant meetings and away from your normal location for long periods of time.

It’s obvious that when you’re not available for your team, your team members may feel unsupported. After all, they won’t have a person to easily address their concerns or provide direction.

However, this is only part of the challenge.

The other part is the challenge of observation.

Unavailable boss - bad behaviour

By observation, I mean that when you’re unavailable or uncontactable, it’s hard to see what your team members are doing.

If you’re not present, it’s difficult to observe interactions between team members or the behaviour that they’re engaging in.

When it comes to bad behaviour, if you’re going to have a conversation to address it with a team member, it’s much better to have been able to observe the behaviour directly, rather than act on hearsay.

Learn More:  6 Great Ways to Support Your Team.

Bad Behaviour and the Challenge of Plausible Deniability

When there is a lack of observation, there is also plausible deniability.

That is, the team member has the plausible ability to deny any accusation of wrongdoing.

We call it plausible because we didn’t directly observe the behaviour. It’s possible that we are mistaken, which means they can deny that the behaviour ever happened.

Plausible Deniability

And because we don’t know for sure that there was a problem, we tend to lose confidence and lack conviction, which increases the doubt in our minds.

Before we know it, we’ve “let it slide” because we can’t be certain of the bad behaviour.

Of course, you might say that “there is no smoke without fire” and act on indirect feedback from somebody who says they observed it. But this means you run a greater risk of being wrong and treating people unfairly.

It’s a bit of a minefield when you think about it.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #149: Steps to Break Negative Behaviour Patterns.

How to Tackle the Unavailability Problem

It’s never easy as a busy leader, but here are some suggestions to try to tackle the unavailability problem, so you have a greater chance of actually observing what’s happening in your team.

  • Push back and allocate time. One way to stop being unavailable is to be … more available. That is, you might start to push back on constant meetings and safeguard the time that you can spend in your normal place of work, where you can be around your team.
  • Walk around. While it might seem that leaders who walk around are just slacking off, they’re actually making sure they can interact with their people more and see what’s happening in their workplace. This helps them to keep their finger on the pulse.
  • Build relationships with trusted colleagues. The reality is that you can’t be everywhere at once, so you will need some help. Having a network of trusted colleagues makes it easy to stay in the loop, because your network may interact with your team too. Indirect feedback is not as good as direct observation, but feedback from a trusted source is the next best thing.

We don’t want to turn this into a micromanagement situation, where your people have no space or autonomy.

The point is that we want to increase our touch points with the team, so that we have a better chance of spotting bad behaviour when it occurs, or at least observing the warning signs that some could be on the way.

Learn More:  Forget the Tools, Master These Top 3 Time Management Skills.

What About Bad Behaviour and Remote Working?

That’s a good question, and it’s a tough one!

In an online environment, you won’t have a chance to see your people as often, but I think you can get around this somewhat.

Organising regular team meetings and individual checkins should be part of your regular routine, whether you are online or not.

The next part is to make sure you have oversight of the results of the team.

leading remote staff

If you can’t tell if your team is working without observing them directly, then you have an issue. You’ll need systems and processes in place to be able to see how productive your team members are, and whether they are delivering on their commitments.

Otherwise, you’ll be flying blind, which can be a huge source of insecurity for many leaders with remote teams.

Learn More:  4 Lessons Learned from Remote Working.

2. Responding to the Symptom Instead of the Real Problem

Another issue that I see plaguing many workplaces is that of tackling the symptom… but not the real problem.

Putting it a slightly different way, this is when I see leaders working around the issue, rather than tackling it directly.

Let’s look at an example.

Someone in a team frequently interrupts other team members when they’re talking during meetings.

The leader notices this, so they do the following things:

  • They create a section on the agenda for questions, so the team member can ask them there, instead of interrupting others
  • They create ground rules for meetings, including things like listening, having respect for others and so on; and
  • The team is forced to attend “communication skills” training.

Notice anything missing?

That’s right – it’s the bit where they speak to the team member about their interrupting behaviour.

Why is leadership important - businesswoman leading meeting

You might think this is strange, but this is a real example, and it’s the sort of thing that happens often in workplaces.

Instead of directly tackling or discussing the problem, we hope that we can prevent bad behaviour by adjusting our processes or ways of working instead.

But this means that the person engaging in the bad behaviour never needs to respond to it directly. They can continue as they are.

Instead, it might be as simple as starting a private conversation with the interrupting team member, like:

“I noticed in the meeting today that you interrupted Sam several times, and she seemed quite annoyed by it. Can we please discuss this?”

That way, they have awareness of the behaviour (some people don’t realise what they’re doing) and you have a chance to find out what’s behind it.

The solution might not be easy, but you have at least started a conversation which brings the issue out in the open.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #115: Workplace Issues? Take These Powerful Leadership Actions.

3. Focusing Too Much on Results

As a leader, your job is to get results, but it’s also to support your people and help them develop.

A problem can arise when we focus our attention only on results, and not enough on how we get those results.

Team target mountain

Results are easy to measure.

A team member made $45k in sales or spent an average of 1.3 minutes on every phone call. This is easy, because systems help us to track metrics and measure them against targets.

But if we focus too much on the end goal and not how we get there, bad behaviour can happen.

A salesperson can make a heap of sales by engaging in underhanded, sabotaging competitive behaviour against their team mates.

A project can be delivered on time and on budget if you force it through, failing to collaborate and dismissing any concerns.

The point is, the way we go about the work matters, as well as the result.

Some leaders look past bad behaviour, because the person doing it is a “top performer”.

A senior leader at one company told me about a difficult manager:

“They can be hard to work with, but they’re just so smart”.

I’ll tell you what they were in slightly different terms. They were actually a big pain in the arse, and they caused a lot of friction that actually impacted results!

Don’t Overlook the Side Effects

When we overlook bad behaviour in favour of results, we run the risk of creating harmful side-effects such as:

  • Reducing morale in the team, when other people see that the bad behaviour is not being addressed
  • Enabling others to show bad behaviour too, because they know it won’t be punished if they hit their targets; and
  • Reducing teamwork – when people choose to do their own thing, rather than collaborate with people who engage in bad behaviour.

It’s good to focus on results, but it’s also important to focus on how you get there.

Do you see any of these subtle enablers happening in your team or workplace? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!


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