Dealing with difficult behavior, Part III

In part I and part II of this series, different types of problem-causing behavior have been described, along with some tips to manage them. First you need to recognize your own behavior; then you need to recognize the behavior of the other person. Now, let’s look at some of the triggers that launch people into their “difficult behavior” mode.

Example one

Joan had spent months on her own time studying for her MCSE examination. It was a long haul, but she was successful. On the previous Saturday, she took and passed the examination to become certificated as a MCSE. She couldn’t wait until Monday to tell her supervisor Frank about her success. She understood that the company was looking to hire a new supervisor for the broadcast IT department, and she stood a good chance in getting the job — only if she was MCSE certified. Now that she had nailed that part of the process, she needed to be sure the boss also knew it.

She went to Frank’s office, but found him on the phone. As she waited just outside his door, she was so thrilled about the news she was about to give Frank, it was difficult to hide her excitement. Finally, the phone call was over, and Frank invited her into his office, “What’s up?” he said. Joan began by telling him that she’d passed her MCSE examination and wanted to know if the company was still planning on hiring someone to head up the new IT broadcast department.

That’s when the phone rang. Frank, holding up his hand, said, “That’s good news on your certificate. But could we talk about it later? I’ve got to take this call.”

“No problem,” Joan said. “I’ll just talk to you later.” She then quickly exited his office.

No matter what Frank’s intentions, Joan feels severely hurt, deflated and unappreciated. She will recover from the incident, especially if Frank makes an effort to track her down and conclude the conversation. But, he’ll need to do it soon, preferably within minutes. If Frank waits until the next day, or worse, forgets, it is likely that Joan will negatively perceive his lack of professional support. It may be difficult for Joan to quickly recover from this type of management mistake.

When Joan returns to her workstation, she is not going to be focused on her job. She will be focused on how hurt she feels. Depending upon her own emotion index, she may soon get over the hard feelings. Or, the ill feelings she is now experiencing could continue for a long time. For the remainder of the day, Joan may be a less effective employee. She may make mistakes, even behave out-of-character.

Broadcast is a fast-paced business, and there is seldom the opportunity for “do-overs.” If someone in IT incorrectly programs an IP address into the router and a spot is lost, that is loss revenue. If that mistake was caused because a supervisor failed to properly support his employee or was just ignorant of good staff management, it doesn’t matter. Money can be lost, and at least one person’s morale has been damaged.

How do you think Joan will greet Frank the next time they cross paths? Will she be the same excited employee as she was on Monday morning? Or, is she more likely to be despondent or even display a “don’t give a darn” attitude, which may show up in her work? Do you think Joan will be as excited about making an extra effort to improve herself — or her performance — for the company next time? When Frank needs a little bit of extra push to complete a project, do you think Joan will be volunteering?

Identifying defensive strategies

Everyone deals with pressure and threats differently. Although the specific behaviors exhibited are unique to the individual, there are four general types of coping behavior in the workplace.

The first type is called, blame others/fight. It is seen as a first line of defense against personal attack. The defensive person will, at first, blame the other person. A chief engineer approaches the evening shift supervisor and asks why two ENG feeds failed during last night’s newscast. Instead of a logical explanation, the shift supervisor might say, “It’s not my fault the truck operator can’t properly aim the antenna. God knows she’s had plenty of time to learn how to do it.”

Note that no useful information was passed from the shift supervisor to the engineer. Instead, the shift leader placed the blame on someone else. Often the blame will be placed on them or they, convenient nebulous scapegoats.

A related approach is referred to as blame self/give in. In the same situation, a shift supervisor who behaves this way might say, “Yeah, I know. It was probably my fault. I should have spent more time training Aaron before I sent her out in the ENG van by herself.”

The dig-in/withdraw defensive response is used by people who just like to fight. They will dig in their heels and hold their ground — even when they know they are wrong. After these types make a show of holding their position, they often make a swift withdraw from the situation. To them, this is a quick way to save face by allowing themselves to make a point without having to defend it later.

The fourth defensive strategy is distract/make peace. The shift operator using this approach may respond, “You’re right chief; we blew it last night. Oh, by the way, both ENG vans really need to have the mast compressors serviced. Can you arrange for that? The guys you hired to do it last time were really good.”

The response seems to acknowledge the problem at first, but the shift supervisor quickly changes the subject with a little ego-patting for the chief engineer. The intent is to distract the attacker and make peace, often by massaging the other person’s ego.

Breaking down the defenses

Coping with these behaviors is a four-step process. First, you must be able to recognize when the defensive behavior begins.

The second step, and for many the most difficult, is to interrupt any cycle of defensive behavior. Let’s say the GM is the one who just dumped on you about the previous night’s errant ENG news shots. You immediately storm into the engineering shop to “get to the bottom of this.” Just as you reach the shift supervisor, you realize that your finger is in the air, pointed at the poor guy you think is responsible, and your voice is raised. Stop. No matter how strange it may appear to others, stop talking, turn around, and go back to your office.

If you can do this, you have interrupted your own defensive behavior cycle. Cutting off your behavior, especially in front of others, may seem drastic but the rewards are worth the effort.

Third, be alert to the signs of defensive reactions toward you. Failing to quickly recognize defensive behavior when it appears makes it more difficult to take effective action.

Identifying and addressing the particular threat, as perceived by the other person, is the last step in dealing with this behavior. It also is the most difficult unless you know the other person well. You can offend someone deeply without evening knowing it. Frank never knew he had hurt Joan when he took the phone call instead of continuing his conversation with her.

Let’s say you’re touring the station with Pete, the new chief engineer and you make a comment about the previous chief engineer. “John sure was talented. I was always impressed with the thought and care that went into his designs. His abilities are obvious in the excellent appearance of these studios.”

It doesn’t matter whether John was or was not a great engineer, Pete might view the complimentary statements you just made about him as a threat to his own capabilities. Likewise, if you make derogatory statements about the previous chief, Pete could feel that you are putting unrealistic expectations upon him.

There is evidence that people often respond emotionally to events before the situation has been analyzed consciously. The defensive strategies are then used unconsciously. Unfortunately, such emotional responses seldom benefit the job environment. The result usually is increased tension among staff members, lowered morale and decreased efficiency. Preventing emotional traps from becoming problem behavior requires early detection and prevention.