How to work with a jerk when you're the one managing the team
- Insider's latest work-advice column concerns an employee who's a good worker but has anger issues.
- His bullying and outbursts are affecting team dynamics and hurting morale.
I like to think that I'm a good manager. I get along with and respect the people on my team, and I'm confident they feel the same way about me. But I have one employee — I'll call him John — with anger issues. He can be a nice guy, but there are times when he seems on the verge of an explosion. It's affecting other members of the team, and I fear it will affect the way my team perceives me if I allow his behavior to continue.
The other day during an in-person meeting, for instance, John was arguing a point and got more and more frustrated when other members of the team didn't agree with him. He raised his voice repeatedly to make his point. If anyone disagreed with him, he turned an angry face toward them and said something dismissive. It chilled the room. I was so shocked that I didn't know how to respond.
People are afraid and don't know how John will react. Will he be the good guy or the angry guy? One of my other employees wants to "take him on," and I have discouraged that. I don't like conflict. But several members on my team now want to have only remote meetings because they don't want to be around John.
My boss just tells me to handle it. John is good at his job, but he ends up causing a lot of stress and tension. I don't want to open myself up to an HR complaint if I discipline him too strongly. What should I do?
My first reaction is sympathy. I feel not only for you having to manage John but also for your team members who are forced to deal with a combustible colleague.
That's why my second reaction is an urgent plea: Get on top of this situation, stat. Your job as a manager is to make the work environment a safe, comfortable place where people can do their best work. This is not easy when you have a person like John in your midst — especially for someone who shies away from conflict — but it's important. The psychological well-being of your team is at stake.
So what should you do? Human resources should be your first port of call, according to Amy Gallo, a workplace expert and the author of "Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People)." There's no need to lodge a formal complaint against John — not yet, at least, she said. "But consulting with someone who's discrete and trustworthy and whose ear you can bend in a confidential way could be helpful," she said.
This is especially true if you get to a point later where you want to fire John. In the meantime, Gallo advised documenting everything: dates of meetings with John, his behavior, how colleagues reacted to it, and so on. A paper trail is essential.
Next, she said, talk to John. Begin with gentle questions: How are things going for you? Anything we haven't talked about that you want to tell me? Don't pry, but maybe there's a reason he's acting this way. It's been a long pandemic, and many people are hurting. He might have an alcohol or drug problem. He may be dealing with family issues or financial difficulties. Follow John's lead. John's personal struggles do not excuse his behavior, of course, but understanding the root of his frustration could make it easier to defuse tense situations.
The heart of the conversation, though, is where you tell John what you've observed in his behavior and its effect on the team. Again, start with a question: How did Monday's meeting go for you? While it's possible that John is one of those toxic humans who doesn't care a whit about his fellow colleagues, research shows that most jerks and bullies are unaware of how they come across to others. They're simply oblivious.
This is where your leadership comes in, Gallo said. She recommended offering feedback using the "situation-behavior-impact" technique, in which you give an example and describe its consequences. For instance, you might say: "John, during Monday's meeting, you twice interrupted colleagues. That meant that some people didn't get a chance to state their opinions. In order to accomplish our collective goals, we need to hear from everyone."
Then you explain to John how he could have conducted himself differently and work with him to develop a plan to improve. Your tone and demeanor are critical here, according to Hesha Abrams, the author of "Holding the Calm: The Secret to Resolving Conflict and Defusing Tension" and a business mediator who has resolved disputes at Google, Amazon, and Pepsi, among others.
"If you frame the conversation as being supportive rather than scolding and punishing, John will be much more likely to listen to what you have to say and take corrective actions," she said.
Finally, address the matter with your team. You don't need to get into specifics, but acknowledging the situation and setting out protocols for effective team interaction will reassure people that standards are being set. Be positive as you lay out the rules of engagement, Abrams said.
"It's not, 'We don't have angry outbursts,' but rather, 'We do treat each other with respect,'" she said. "'We do listen to each other's point of view. We can handle and take responsibility for our big emotions, and if we need help and support from the team, we ask for it.'"
It's also a good idea to check in with your team members one-on-one and ask for their patience and understanding. Remind them, too, that we all have bad days and we don't always know the stress someone is under, Abrams said.
"We all make mistakes and we are human," she said. "We need firm boundaries, but everyone needs a little grace as well."
Hopefully, you will start to see changes in John and team dynamics will get better. If not, protect yourself and go back to the paper trail.
This story was originally published on June 30, 2022.
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