Controlling Disruptive People
It sometimes seems that there are three types of people in the workplace:
- The highly self-motivated – people who work hard and exceed expectations because that's their nature.
- The noncommittal – people who do the right thing if managed reasonably well.
- "Rogues" – people who won't do what's expected, and seem to do the minimum necessary to keep their jobs.
We've developed solid systems for retaining self-motivated workers and for inspiring non-committal workers. And we have HR policies for people who can't or won't do their jobs. But how do you deal with people who perform usefully, but cause trouble in some way? This is a significant challenge. And although you may not have many rogues in your organization, they can impact how others work and harm the efficiency of your team.
Understanding these people and having strategies to manage them will improve your managerial effectiveness, and it will remove a serious source of dissatisfaction for your team.
To better understand rogues, let's start by defining them. Dictionaries use terms like unprincipled, unreliable, mischievous, and dishonest. In the animal kingdom, rogues separate themselves; they live alone and behave unpredictably.
Rogue workers meet both of these definitions. They can be described using any number of other terms:
- Poor work ethic.
- Negative attitude.
The roguishness varies from person to person. Some people try to find ways to cut corners and avoid requirements anywhere possible. The phrase "that's not in my job description" is a classic favorite of rogues. They also like "I'll have to put you on hold" and then promptly disconnect the phone line. A rogue might undermine authority and look for ways to cause problems for his new manager, or she might be the executive who continues to charge the company for expensive meals and unnecessary business trips, despite organizational cutbacks.
We're not talking about criminal behavior or gross misconduct, here. If you see either of these behaviors in your team, you should immediately speak to HR or the police, whichever is appropriate.
Restricting Rogues With Work Systems
The behavior of rogues, and the severity of this behavior, may vary. However, the basic strategy to deal with rogues is fairly universal. Your systems need to be strong enough so that one person isn't able to hurt an otherwise productive team.
Systems aren't the most glamorous part of working life. Many systems are outdated and redundant – that's why people ignore them. That's also why rogues are often able to do what they do, and why they get confronted only when the consequences of what they do become significant.
The best place to start managing rogues is by completely reviewing your system of checks and balances. This means that you can stay informed of what's really going on in your team and your company. Consider the following:
- How are people hired? Do you have a thorough hiring process – complete with questions or other measurements, such as taking sufficiently detailed references – that will alert you to potential rogue behavior? Who checks to make sure the process is followed?
- Do you have a consistent performance management system that all managers use and follow? Who manages the managers? Who checks to ensure that performance objectives are set and monitored?
- Are customers, suppliers, and other key stakeholders asked to provide feedback about the contacts they have with your staff?
- Do you have regular, mutual feedback sessions between leaders and their team members?
- Is there a process for whistleblowing?
These are the types of questions you should address when dealing with a rogue worker. If you have one or two rogues, you certainly don't want any more. You want to be able to deal with the situation quickly and efficiently, and you want to base any decisions on reliable evidence.
Keeping It Real
The next fundamental step in dealing with rogue behavior is to identify it as specifically and objectively as possible. Managing rogues is really performance management at a very intense level. Everything you do must be clearer and more precise. See our article on performance management for more on this, and make sure that you spend the time needed to understand if there are genuine reasons why people may be behaving in a way that seems malicious.
Management By Wandering Around is one of the best ways to gather the information you need. And it often discourages and prevents unacceptable behavior, simply because the rogue never knows if or when you'll be around. If you hear that Jim is working on his personal business plan during office hours, and you walk around on a regular basis, he'll either stop or you'll catch him – and then you can address the situation immediately. If Kate is constantly messing around and disrupting the team, your unexpected visits might be the motivation she needs to get more serious.
Another way to keep track of what's happening is to use tools like dashboards and scorecards to communicate your expectations and priorities, and to follow progress and productivity. There's a lot of truth to the saying "what gets measured, gets done." You might not be able to get the person to stop being a rogue, but you can remove the rogue behavior from work by closely watching him or her. Many leaders don't like the idea of controlling behavior. However, understand that it may be necessary, and recognize that when dealing with difficult people, you have to be assertive and take charge.
Be sensitive in the way that you do this. You need to find the fine balance between avoiding micromanaging reliable members of your team, and being present to keep the rogue in order. And take advice from your HR people to ensure that you avoid any behavior that could be considered to be discriminatory.
You Get What You Give
Rogue behavior can be very obvious if we choose to see it. The problem is, with all the other demands on our time, we often ignore it because it's easier to do so. If your assistant won't walk to another department to pick up something because "she doesn't feel like it," you have two choices. You can deal with the insubordinate behavior immediately, or you can get the items you need in some other way. It's often easier to ask someone else to go, rather than sit down with your assistant and talk things through. The first option wastes no time, and the second option may take half an hour to deal with.
With rogues, you have to be willing to make the extra effort to deal with the inappropriate behavior. Rogues won't typically correct their own behavior. Remember, these are people who are not even trying to be effective and loyal workers. Giving them choices and options only provides them with more opportunities to avoid following the system. What they need are clear expectations with no room to avoid them. And they must be held accountable at all times.
Performance agreements, which define your expectations and consequences for not meeting them, are very effective. If you request a three-page report, you might end up receiving 200 words triple-spaced on each page. If you expect 1,500 words, specify that. With rogues, you might need to develop written agreements for small tasks as well as larger projects.
And make sure that you follow up! An agreement is only as strong as the follow-up. If you give less attention to the back end of the process, the rogue will see that as another opportunity to do less than expected. It's a lot more work to ensure accountability rather than simply assume that it exists. However, the effort you put in will be rewarded with behavior and performance that meets your expectations.
For more information on managing performance, see the Performance Management section of our Team Tools menu.
One of the greatest challenges at work is dealing with people who are not prepared or motivated to work at the level that's expected of them. Whether it's chronic lateness, rude behavior, dishonesty, or just a bad attitude, rogue workers are disruptive and damaging.
To deal with them effectively, take a firm stand, and don't let them get away with the behavior. You also must be prepared to work a bit harder and tighten your systems to stay more in touch with what's really happening in the workplace.
It's easy to sit back and trust that everyone is doing what's expected. But that may allow rogue behavior to start and continue, so stay sharp and watch closely. Insist that workers consistently meet your expectations, and make sure that those expectations are clearly expressed.
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