Preserving Tranquility in the Face of Hostility

By Mark Gorkin

Companies often invite their own dis-ease and disorder by not knowing how to manage the emotionally negative or belligerent employee. Two effects are predictable when such a stress carrier goes unchecked:  a) The company’s atmosphere will be disrupted, and b) The client’s trust will be contaminated. Interpersonal simpatico and a basic sense of trust that he or she is in professionally skilled and “good hands” are essential for a positive experience. Negative or overly aggressive energy is a virus corrupting that trust.

In addition, when top management does not address the behavior and attitude of a belligerent employee, both clients and staff will question the quality of service and the professionalism of the business as well as your capacity for leadership.

Signs of Negativity

Here are three key warning signs that cut across the operational spectrum:

  1. Reactivity and impatience – A problem employee is often reactive, quick to take comments personally. Such an employee shows a reduced capacity for being an empathic listener. A therapist caught up in his or her static can hardly be fully present with a client. For example, such an individual may frequently look at his or her watch and brusquely declare, “Your thirty minutes are up!”
  2. Competition over cooperation – Combative employees often isolate themselves or appear aloof. They are not team players; in fact, they may be prima donnas. (Whether they even warrant the status of being “a legend in their own minds” may well be debatable.) These individuals may not extend courtesies to their colleagues. Such a cold or prickly person not only irritates clients but also can have a chilling impact on team camaraderie and support. (Read on.)
  3. Bad-mouthing – Whether competing for clients or just projecting their own state of dissatisfaction, some hostile employees talk negatively about others – criticizing colleagues, the ownership, etc. And this negativity frequently occurs behind the target’s back:  “Can you believe so-and-so did (or said) such-and such?” Such individuals may even try recruiting negative allies among clients and staff thereby creating morale-draining cliques.

Clearly, all facets of your business – the client experience, staff morale and the legitimacy of leadership – are in jeopardy if you are not actively confronting such a dysfunctional individual. So the obvious question is this: As a business owner, how do you constructively engage the belligerent employee and set limits on his or her disruptive and demoralizing behavior? Now let me make this Q&A a bit more complex and compelling. Let’s assume this individual is talented and/or a high producer. (If this negative individual doesn’t bring positive attributes to the table, your decision-making process is simplified…unless he or she is a blood relative. Then, the dynamics can become quite entangled, and family therapy – not just organizational strategy – may be indicated.)

Strategic Interventions

Here are five strategic steps for dealing with a negative or belligerent employee:

1. Begin an informal exploration and heads up. An owner or manager needs to intervene quickly and decisively at the first sign of belligerence or harsh negativity. This intervention may range from exploring the person-situation factors behind the hostile behavior to determine whether the employee is able or willing to acknowledge his or her problematic actions and attitude. Also, review with the employee appropriate ways of responding when frustrated, including having a ventilation meeting with you or a supervisor. Make clear that polluting the workplace atmosphere is totally unacceptable. (At the same time, be careful about becoming too personal in your questioning. Remember, you are the employee’s manager not their therapist. Maintaining this boundary is especially tricky when the employee is a personal friend.)

2. Start a Documentation Process. However, you don’t have to wait for a dramatic incident to begin engaging constructively a hostile or negative employee. If you start having some question about an employee’s hostility or passive-aggressive attitude, or there already have been a couple of code yellow warning signs, after an initial heads up meeting, you or your manager need to start documenting any signs of unprofessional or disruptive activity. Also remember, for an effective intervention process, an owner and manager or supervisor must be on the same page in terms of their assessment of the employee’s problematic behavior and the subsequent remedial recommendations. If you don’t want dysfunctional family dynamics to infiltrate your work place, don’t allow a provocative individual to play one authority against the other.

3. Develop a Performance Improvement Plan. Depending on the nature of the hostile incident or reaction and depending on your desire to reeducate and positively motivate this individual, a formal improvement plan may be a wise next step. This plan should detail specific behavioral and interpersonal objectives (e.g. examples of team cooperation) and performance goals (e.g. constructive ways of communicating frustration or anger, when to talk with a manager, etc.). If you sense that the employee has some personal or family issues that may be fueling the belligerence, you may want to ask if the employee has thought about some short-term psychological counseling. (Cognitive-behavioral therapy often can effect meaningful change in six to 12 sessions. Some businesses pay for a time-limited number of counseling sessions as a company benefit.) Again, the challenge is not to become too intrusive in the employee’s life. Expecting professional behavior on the part of all employees and management staff must be the bottom line.

Whether this individual does or does not accept the counseling recommendation, set up a regular (weekly?) schedule for at least a month. With the Performance Improvement Plan as the standard, these meetings will monitor the employee’s office communications and working relations with clients, staff and management.

And if you haven’t been having twice a year performance reviews with all employees, please consider such a move. First, this provides formal performance feedback. Second, if the feedback process is mutual, then management and staff issues are uncovered (including the presence of a covertly aggressive or an early-stage hostile employee). A give and take performance review fortifies understanding and relating. In addition, an ongoing and open process will keep you in touch with individual and team dynamics that affect workplace morale and harmony. (Clearly, organizational IRAs – incentives, rewards and recognition and advancement opportunities – should be provided on a timely basis throughout the year.)

4. Hold a Team Meeting. Though understandable, many people try ignoring or avoiding the belligerent employee. If this individual has been polluting your company climate for a period of time, you may need to hold a stress debriefing for other staff members. Bullies more often leave psychic scars than actual ones. (And while our focus has been on the frontline employee, the ambient tension and the degree of trauma often increase dramatically when the bully is in a management position.)

If the problematic individual is no longer on staff, then you or an office manager need to facilitate a group venting session. There likely is lingering frustration:  a) towards the employee and b) towards ownership for tolerating a dysfunctional work environment. If this problematic individual will continue on staff and there is unresolved resentment, then consider bringing in a conflict/team-building consultant to hold a team intervention with all parties. This consultant will both provide individual coaching and will help the group work through unresolved anger or hurt, helping to clear the air. In the right hands, the intervention does not have to regress into a group primal scream session. The resultant fresh air and renewed tranquility is worth the team-building investment.

5. Develop and Disseminate a Work Environment Policy. Finally, ask staff for input on developing both a performance review plan and a harmonious work environment policy. It’s also wise to consult with a lawyer and/or a human resources consultant versed in personnel procedure and hostile workplace policy, including intervention and prevention steps. Create a formal manual, and distribute it to all personnel. Finally, follow these actions with some formal harmonious environment training.

Closing Summary

This article has examined three broad stress-warning signs indicating the presence of an emotionally negative or belligerent employee:  1) Reactivity and Impatience, 2) Competition over Cooperation” and 3) Bad-Mouthing. The harmony of a workplace will likely be compromised when ownership does not know how to manage such a problematic individual. Five strategic interventions for engaging such an employee were posited:  1) Begin an informal exploration and heads up, 2) Start a documentation process, 3) Develop a performance improvement plan, 4) Hold a team meeting and 5) Develop and disseminate a work environment policy. Hopefully, these steps and strategies will rejuvenate positive energy and a productive and harmonious space and also help all parties.

About the Author

Mark Gorkin, the Stress Doc™,, acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, retreat leader and motivational humorist, is the author of Practice Safe Stress and The Four Faces of Anger. A former stress & violence prevention consultant for the U.S. Postal Service, the Doc leads highly interactive, innovative and inspiring programs for corporations and government agencies, including the U.S. Military, on stress resiliency/burnout prevention through humor, change and conflict management, generational communication, and the three Rs (responsible, resilient and risk-taking) leadership-partnership team building. Email [email protected] for his popular free newsletter and info on speaking programs.

Copyright© 2016, Mark Gorkin. All rights reserved. For information, contact FrogPond at [email protected].