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Demonstrate Caring When Correcting Employee Behaviour

Bill Howatt  Bill Howatt
Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance

This op-ed was originally published in Halifax's The Chronicle Herald on January 2, 2019.

As a leader, you discover an employee who’s acting in a manner that’s disrupting other employees.
What do you do?
This simple example and question can occur any time that a leader is challenged to intervene in a disruptive situation.

The word disrupting falls on a continuum from mild to severe. It may be an employee who takes extended breaks, fails to return peer emails, needs some information to continue their work, has a negative interaction with a peer, or is rude and loud.

Regardless of where it falls on the continuum, once a leader is aware of disruptive behaviour, action is required on their part.

Leaders are entrusted by their organization’s executive to enforce the social norms that are written down (e.g., values, policies and procedures) as well as the culture’s unwritten rules. One of the most challenging functions for a leader can be guiding employees to get along with each other in a civil manner.

A leader may adopt one of two common approaches when correcting disruptive behaviour.

A leader who uses a correcting approach observes disruptive behaviour and then evaluates it. Once the behaviour has been deemed not acceptable, the primary focus moves to stopping it immediately, by confronting the offending employee. A leader in this mindset is at risk of looking at the situation through a right-and-wrong lens that carries judgment of good and bad.

The most common action is for a leader to take a direct approach, pointing out the disruptive behaviour, why it’s wrong, what’s expected, and the consequences if it continues.

This approach amounts to a one-way conversation with the primary focus on compliance rather than competency. The subject of the conversation may feel a degree of anxiety and stress, as most of us don’t like feeling that we’re in trouble.

Some employees may become defensive, which can increase the risk for negative discourse with their leader. Those who struggle to manage their emotions under pressure may end up escalating a situation by telling their leader off, out of frustration.

One criticism of the correcting approach is that there’s little focus on assessing what may be the root cause of why the employee is engaging in behaviours that are distracting other employees.

A leader who takes a caring and correcting approach accepts that a set of social norms must be adhered to by all employees to create consistency and civility within the work culture.

When they discover an employee engaging in disruptive behaviour that’s outside the social norms, the first instinct is not to correct but to seek to understand what’s happening and what may help explain the behaviour. The focus is not on right or wrong but on helping the employee want to stop the behaviour that’s disrupting others.

Caring is not about being soft. It’s about being fair and accepting that every employee’s work and life can have stressful moments or unresolved conflict that can influence their behaviour. A leader using this approach doesn’t take an employee’s behaviour personally.

The caring and correcting approach is to try to understand and then ask questions to ensure the employee engaged in disruptive behaviour is aware of why what they’re doing is viewed by others as being disruptive.

This approach uses open questions to discover if the employee has the knowledge and skills to stop the behaviour, as well as the motivation to stop it and fix any damage done. The primary focus is on learning and developing the employee’s competency.

Caring and correcting may result in administrative consequences, but without judgment. Those who don’t learn or demonstrate motivation to learn are making their own choices that will result in natural consequences.

The employee manager-relationship may be one of the most important factors for predicting an employee’s productivity, engagement and health.

A leader’s mindset and focus may be influenced by the reason an employee is distracted and disrupting a workplace. The employee may be experiencing a mental health issue; isn’t getting enough sleep; is feeling chronic fatigue; having relationship issues at home; dealing with financial stress; or feeling overwhelmed by their workload. A distracted employee may engage in behaviours to cope that can be distracting to others.

Caring and correcting requires a leader to be willing to take a moment to see the world through a disrupting employee’s eyes to understand their experience. There’s never a time that behaviour that hurts others can be accepted or tolerated. However, how a leader intervenes sets the tone for learning and resolution that can both stop disruptive behaviour and help an employee learn and grow.

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