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Tolerating Undesirable Behavior at Work

“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.” Steve Jobs

Many workplaces focus on ‘deliverables’ associated to business measures such as the ‘bottom line’ – profits, lending, market share and so on. These business results are the metric by which success is measured. As a result, the performance management framework and practices follow the same track and measure individual performance based on these numbers.

While many organizations have adopted ‘softer’ metrics for performance and success, including teamwork, leading teams, communication, client focus and so on; many more are still stuck in the ‘hard’ metrics of performance management. While many laud exemplary performance among teams, it is still the case in many workplaces that the ‘successful’ colleagues are those who deliver the money; and many times, their behavior is not scrutinized. If you toe the line and deliver what the business wants – you can almost get away with anything.

I have worked in organizations where the opposite is true. Employees were held accountable not only for the traditional or common business results, they were answerable for how they behaved or treated others, too. Managers knew better than to let a ‘rouge’ on their team, who was out of control and made others’ work or environment difficult; get away with such conduct. Indeed, consistent unprofessional, abrasive, disrespectful or divisive habits could over time be grounds for dismissal.

Conversely, I have seen other work environments that ignore such behavior. The impact of this on teams, the culture and business results is insidious and deep reaching. Coming from a previous job where the culture was open, and we candidly addressed negative behaviors; I endeavored to address a situation where a colleague repeatedly undermined other people’s work. I had a one-on-one with her citing the incidents I had observed, their impact in the specific situations and general ramifications for the team. She promptly apologized and conveyed her desire to work better with others and promote team success. Unbeknownst to me, this incident was just one of a series of undesirable behaviors that this employee had exhibited for years. Apparently, it was not new for this employee to behave ineptly. I discovered that no one had addressed the situation and because she came with a supposedly solid technical background and was well spoken in the many meetings she called or attended; this employee got away with her below-par conduct.

I discovered from the immediate and other cross-functional teams, that she had a reputation for manipulation, sabotage, self-aggrandizement and a habit of undermining others. She seemed to be as slippery as an eel within the disciplinary process. Being on the same team, I made further efforts to address the situation and one time I asked the management team to deal with the situation as it was having a negative impact on team morale and progress with work. As a senior member on the team, junior staff looked up to her – some copied the same behaviors while some simply avoided her as far as possible. The numerous near-misses and critical service gaps created by her erratic workstyle were rarely reported despite their impact on the quality of service delivery. The team had long concluded that this colleague could ‘get away with anything’. They instead treated these incidents like relics that they recounted as humorous anecdotes during their breaks.

When I raised my concerns to the management team, I was baffled when I was told to ‘just ignore her’. In their view, ‘you cannot change someone who is in her 50’s’ – ‘that is how she is and there’s not much we can do about it’. I was advised to concentrate on my work and ‘forget about her’. Indeed, I apparently needed to simply understand that her behavior was ‘not personal’ and continue with what was set out for me to do.

As baffling as the above is, I think I was even more surprised by the lack of understanding that buttressed this feedback. It essentially seemed that this management team genuinely did not see the overarching issues here. Untamed negative behavior at work is a debilitating disease. When we fail to address this conduct, we are not only losing out on the potential value that this employee could bring to the table, with healthier behaviors. We lose out on the discretionary effort from other members on the team, who naturally ‘cut back’ when they see that their co-worker gets away with what they perceive or know to be unacceptable conduct. Compound that over time and you have far-diminished outcomes than you would have had, if you had only nipped this situation in the bud.

The healthiest organizations tend to be excellent at measuring not just the ‘what’ employees do or achieve but also, ‘how’ they do it. Behavioral issues are routinely addressed as part of the performance conversation and day-to-day supervision - staff are held accountable for crossing the line, if they do. This is how great cultures are built and how strong, resilient and ever-growing businesses are built. Trust and openness are expanded or diminished by behaviors that are seemingly innocuous but critical to the fabric that forms a healthy culture.

Many organizational leaders use Peter Drucker’s quote "culture eats strategy for breakfast". You would think that the knowledge that the culture of your organization always determines success, regardless of how effective your strategy may be; would propel leaders to be more intentional about managing behaviors. However, it appears that while they talk the talk, some leaders are not walking it. Are you?

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