People Management

How do you deal with a high-conflict employee?

Photo by Obie Fernandez on Unsplash

If you’ve been running teams for a while, it’s almost unavoidable to bump into a team member that loves to cause conflict. Whether that person is aggressive (nervous, shouting, swearing, angry) or passive-aggressive (telling everyone how shit*y the company is and how all efforts in the project are doomed to fail) is really less important.

Often this anger is turned towards an external party: client, top management or other teams. Sometimes it may turn towards inner team members and that’s called bullying. Although it’s not good either way, the latter – bullying – must have zero tolerance. If you don’t see the obvious reasons why, maybe legal consequences and the reality of losing your own job, for tolerating this behaviour, will help you react.

Fact is people causing conflicts at work, usually have unresolved personal issues or continuous stress in their private life. Their story is a sad one, because they realize the impact of their behaviour when it’s too late and they have been removed from the team or their reputation is seriously damaged.

Understanding where the anger is coming from, may create some empathy and even facilitate finding a solution, but at the end of the day, the manager’s role is not that of a therapist, nor should it be. Don’t misinterpret this statement as in not giving a damn. No, as a manager you should care, you should offer a helping hand if the person wants to take some steps to correct, but also as a manager you are responsible for the whole team and the overall delivery, not just one person. Sometimes the greater good requires removing the rotten apples from the basket.

We’ve already established that bullying should go straight to HR and hopefully finalize with ending the collaboration.  Ok, so you’re a manager dealing with a high-conflict employee. What should you do?

Step 1. Give honest feedback. Once. Twice. You can’t expect a person to improve or to correct a behaviour if nobody’s acknowledging there is a problem and says it  out loud. And that moment is not the yearly feedback.

Step 2. Offer a helping hand. Some people don’t want to be helped, others are too immature to realize they need help, but few will take the offer. Be human. Everyone reaches a low point in their life sooner or later.

Step 3. Don’t wait for the snowball to get bigger. The more it rolls downhill, the bigger it will get and you will not be able to stop it by yourself. Inform your superior and in case of matrix organisations also the practice lead / guild master / community chief / big kahuna of skills that you have a situation requiring attention.

Step 4. Involve HR. From a point onwards, there can be legal consequences. I’ve dealt in the past with someone having a paranoid personality disorder (the “everyone is out there to get me” type – paranoid ideation, often a symptom of schizophrenia and affective disorders). You may find yourself in the middle of a conflict where all communication has to become formal and / or with witnesses. Don’t ignore this. The more time you spend in management positions, the likely it becomes to face such a situation.

Step 5. Do what needs to be done. Skills are never an excuse. You will never deliver work (project or product) with one single person. You need a team of people that work together well. When that attitude problem is reaching the customer / end client, you are taking damage on the company image (which you don’t own and if that happens, you might exit the company hand in hand with the mutineer). At this step, for the rioter, the only way is out: of the project / team / branch / company. Man up and own your decision: don’t push HR in front, to fight your battles.

Step 6. Use your intelligence, not your ego. Same as in negotiations, help the other party arrive at the conclusion you want. Parting ways with a high-conflict employee doesn’t have to be a showdown. Nobody needs to come out or go out with guns blazing. It really doesn’t help. I’ve seen people wanting to prove that “they should him / her” and that they run the place. It’s feeding a good meal to their ego, but that’s all it does. Harmony should be preserved as much as possible.

Good luck and may you turn all conflicts into opportunities!

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