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Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting Troublemakers with the Facts

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

A couple of my employees tend to get all the other staff in an uproar. They constantly turn people against each other and pick on the newbies. How can I address my employees’ tendency to “stir the pot” and help them recognize the harm they’re doing to our work environment?

Mitigating Harm

A Dear Mitigating,

Thanks for this interesting and important question. We’re often asked how to give feedback to direct reports who act in ways that cause problems. Sometimes these challenging individuals are described as having “bad chemistry” with their coworkers. On other occasions, they’re labeled “hard to work with,” “troublesome,” or even worse. In this case, the individuals in question cause uproars, turn people against each other, stir the pot, and pick on newbies.

As their supervisor, it’s your job to do something about the bad behavior. But what?

At first glance, suggesting that the individuals in question cause an uproar or turn people against each other may sound like a description of what they do, when, in fact, these particular words describe the effect not the cause. They behave in some particular way to cause an uproar or turn people against each other, but it’s impossible to decipher from these expressions alone which from millions of possible behaviors they enact.

If you expect the individuals in question to improve, they’ll need to change their behaviors—swapping out the old and replacing them with new. As a leader, you’ll need to adeptly describe, in detail, what they’re currently doing to cause an uproar and the other effects you’ve described.

Describing behaviors requires an understanding of exactly what the offending parties do along with the ability to describe their behavior in a way that is crystal clear. You have to see what others actually do and then metaphorically hold up a mirror so they can see what they need to change.

This can get complicated. When you suggest that the problem employees “stir the pot,” the metaphor masks the actual actions they take. If you tell them they “stir the pot,” they might know what you’re hinting at and change, but it seems unlikely. The same is true with expressions like “picking on newbies.” You include a verb that hints of certain behaviors, but alas, also leaves a lot to the imagination.

When I talk with people facing similar challenges and ask them to provide the behaviors (causes) behind the effects or vague conclusion they describe to me, they often can’t. Their conclusions are firm: “They constantly stir the pot.” That part they feel strongly about, but when I probe for detail, they aren’t able to describe the behaviors the other person enacts. They remember their emotional reaction far more clearly than the actions that took them there.

For instance, when trying to help a supervisor with a salesman who was “socially backward,” I asked for a detailed description of what the salesman did. The supervisor explained that he was “a nerd, a geek—you know, a dweeb.” The supervisor knew what he had concluded about the fellow, and was able to come up with synonyms, but couldn’t describe any actual behaviors.

So I asked him, “The last time he did something you thought was nerdy, what exactly did he do?”

“He looked like he had no confidence in what he was saying,” the supervisor responded. (Also a vague conclusion.)

“And what made him appear unconfident to you?” I continued to probe.

“He stared at the floor. He started a sentence three different times. He spoke in a low voice. The minute the person disagreed, he backed off even though he was correct . . .” and so forth.

At last, behaviors the other person might be able to recognize and replace. This is what the salesman needed to hear and correct.

Most of us use shorthand negative adjectives along with vague outcomes when talking with others because such simple expression often works for us. “Quit teasing your brother!” you bark to your son. He knows exactly what he’s doing and what to do instead. He knows because you’ve told him before—focusing on his actual actions. “Yes, I know you said his new shirt was cool, but you said it in a sing-song tone and rolled your eyes—and that appeared insincere.” You’ve described several versions of “teasing” to your son, so now when he does it, you can address it in shorthand.

However, with direct reports, where we don’t have a long history and the specialized code that comes with it, we need to carefully observe others in actions, take note of the actual behaviors that aren’t working, share those in a direct and non-punitive way, check to see if they understood us, and then talk about replacement behaviors.

I’m assuming you’ve watched your direct reports in action and have a whole list of undesirable actions they take, so you’re ready to hold a discussion in a way that will be helpful.

Start by holding separate conversations—one with each employee. Privacy is essential. Select no more than one or two of the areas you’d like to talk about. You don’t want to overwhelm the other person. Start by describing the undesirable behavior and what you’d like to see instead. Share three or four example actions and take special care to focus on their behaviors, not your conclusions. Share actions you’ve personally observed—hopefully recently. Open the conversation for questions. Ask the other person if he or she sees it differently, and jointly develop a plan of action.

Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into such a feedback discussion. Today, I chose to focus on one element that can turn a painful and vague discussion into a helpful feedback session. Focus on behaviors. Become skilled at both observing and describing them. Know the difference between a behavior and a result or conclusion. Help the other person see what he or she is doing, not merely what you think about him or her.



Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

6 thoughts on “Confronting Troublemakers with the Facts”

  1. Kerry,

    Great article! Any thoughts on how to deal with this when the Mitigating Harm needs to happen in the other direction? When the supervisor/manager is the troublemaker (or when it is ingrained into the corporate culture after years of acceptance as ‘status quo’?

    1. I agree with the commenter above, that indeed if “70% of American’s hate their job”, it’s very likely that it’s “management” that needs to change as much as it is the direct report. My observation is that a Management “training program” very likely does not include the “how-tos” concerning building a positive work culture, where employees can’t wait to “get to work” that day. Of course, it depends on the industry…. companies like Google or AT&T may be “advanced work cultures” that have learned how to tap into their workforce to gain the very best from its human resources… but if America is made up of mostly “small businesses”, I’d say a manager is focused on the bottom line and operations, not if its employees are “happy” at work. Industries such as food service and retail I’d say are the worst culprits in creating a positive work environment where employees “can’t wait to get to work” because they “love their boss”. Most Americans “work” because they have to put food on the table, but do not like their jobs, or their bosses all that much. Personality clashes exist not only between coworkers, but also management and direct reports. But I say until the employee (or the boss / manager) can make their way into their dream job / career field, there are ways the two sides can learn to be productive together, to make 1/3 of their “lives” much more productive, pleasant, and positive.

  2. Is it also important to get at the employees’ motivations for this pot stirring? Is there anything they actually want to see change? Perhaps it is high turnover or the obligation to handle training while maintaining full productivity? Or are they simply malicious and bonded? Do they share a common history that no one else in the group shares?

    It may be time to transfer one and see if the behavior of the other changes. If these were two third graders my wife would separate their desks and remind them of further consequences.

  3. Thanks for the article, and for the compassionate confrontation approach. I would like to suggest that, beyond confronting them with their behavior, and asking their perspective, we consider looking at their work environment? Are they bored? Are they lacking challenges that keep them focus on getting things done? Some personalities “stir the pot” simply because they are bored and not challenged enough.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. It is exactly what I need right now with an employee who is inappropriately teaming up with a member of another department to undermine her coworkers. I’ll be working on behavioral definitions of what she does and we’ll start working on it today.

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