Issue 116 – Michael’s Corner

James Murphy

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Michael’s Corner   Article Number 016


While HR departments are integral to scoping out values and giving examples of the types of behaviour welcomed by an organisation, too often, they aren’t the first port of call if things do go wrong. When a rogue employee is up to no good in an organisation, it will typically be their direct line manager who hears about it first. How they react can prevent wrongdoing from becoming culturally embedded.

Broadly speaking, culture is the glue that binds staff to their employer and guides their actions when hard-and-fast rules are ambiguous, insufficient, or absent. When it doesn’t work, you’ve got a problem. Things get ingrained in the culture at every level, from how you pay people, how you promote people, how you recognise them.

You can push values and encourage people to behave in a certain way, but if values are not linked to behaviour, and you’re not walking the walk, they won’t have any impact. The result of cultural shortcomings isn’t always criminality or misconduct. Often, incompetence and confusion can be every bit as damaging – and the road to recovery just as harrowing.

What are difficult behaviours?


  • Aggression/violence
  • Passive aggression
  • Forceful refusal to co-operate
  • Harassment (bullying, racism, stalking)
  • Mental health – irrational behaviour
  • Alcohol and drug abuse


Other challenging behaviours include:


  • Anything that causes offence or distress
  • Is life-threatening
  • Threatens the emotional well-being of others
  • Does not comply with organisational policy or procedure


Like it or not, tough talks in the workplace cannot be avoided.


Here are some ways you can prepare for the inevitable:

We have all had these thoughts at some time, like “I don’t want to make any waves” or “It was only a minor thing” to avoid confrontation in the workplace.

These are just a few reasons why we don’t speak up. None of us enjoys having an uncomfortable conversation. We find it both stressful and difficult to give or receive negative information.

If it’s so uncomfortable having hard conversations, why not just avoid them? Because, unless it’s a minor matter, the problem doesn’t just go away. It festers.

Here are six basic communications tactics to use when dealing with difficult behaviours:

  1. Don’t react in anger. Express your feelings in a clear and non-threatening way. Creating an open, receptive environment reduces the chances of escalating the conflict.
  2. Be specific when describing the offending situation. Just say what you saw or what you heard. But don’t state any assumptions about intention. This limits the odds of the person responding defensively.
  3. Explain how the situation has affected you. Often people don’t ask or even consider how others are affected by their behaviour, so addressing this directly can help people see some of the consequences of their behaviour.
  4. Ask what they were thinking at the time of the offending action and how the situation makes them feel. Aim for direct answers. Get clarification if needed. Understanding their point of view is the best way to learn how to work with them.
  5. Acknowledge your contribution to the situation. Accepting your share of the responsibility takes away the blame and establishes an even ground.
  6. Invite the other person to work with you to improve the situation. This takes the individual off the hot seat and gives them the power to make a change for the better.

In summary, the importance of “focus.”

Focus on the most important issue you want to address, avoiding all else. Sometimes this can feel like you are tiptoeing around, so it’s important to keep it simple and clear. Here is a guideline for keeping the conversation on topic and ensuring that you say what you need to:

Maintain personal ownership of the problem. When you’re upset and frustrated, it’s important to recognise that this is your problem, not the other person’s. You may feel that your boss or co-worker is the source, but resolving your frustration is your immediate concern. Effective conflict resolution requires accountability for our own actions and feelings.

Succinctly describe your problem in terms of behaviours, consequences, and feelings. A useful model for remembering how to state your concern effectively is: “I have a problem. When you do X, the result is Y, and I feel Z”.

Encourage a two-way discussion. It’s important to establish a problem-solving climate by inviting the respondent to express their opinions and ask questions. There may be a reasonable explanation for another person’s disturbing behaviour. As a rule of thumb, the longer the initiator’s opening statement, the longer it will take the two parties to work through their problem.

Manage the schedule. Approach multiple or complex problems incrementally. This is one way of shortening your opening statement. Rather than raising a series of issues all at once, focus initially on a simple or rudimentary problem. Then, as you better appreciate the other party’s perspective and share some problem-solving success, you can discuss more challenging issues.

Focus on commonalities as the basis for requesting a change. Most disputants share at least some personal and organisational goals, believe in many of the same fundamental management principles, and operate under similar constraints. These commonalities can serve as a useful starting point for generating solutions.

Give some consideration to the source of your concern. What caused your concern in the first place? If it’s personal differences, then address perceptions and expectations. If it’s information deficiencies, address misinformation and misrepresentation. If it’s role incompatibility, define goals and responsibilities. Or, if it’s environmental stress, consider resource scarcity and uncertainty.