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What to do when bad behaviour impacts your business

Dealing with difficult behaviour is one of the most common headaches of managing a team. Not only is it a major cause of stress for the leader and the other team members, it can waste time, derail a project and cause untold collateral damage to otherwise high-functioning teams.

We have yet to meet a leader or manager who enjoys dealing with difficult behaviour but those that do it well report significant improvements in team morale and productivity. This is due to good role modelling in part; if your team see you handling the behaviour, they not only feel like they are in safe hands but are more likely to have the courage to address the behaviour themselves.

By far the most effective way to do this well is to give it some thought and planning before you opt for any form of intervention. Here are some top tips:

Identify the problem

Consider what kind of difficult team member you have. Is it their personality that is clashing with other people? Is it timekeeping or communication issues? Think about the consequences of this person’s behaviour. Is it just an inconvenience or irritation, or is this causing the team or the project real issues? 

If it is a personality clash or the impact is small, ask yourself whether it’s something you can live with. Sometimes it takes the charge out of the issue if the team decides to accept the person’s funny ways. If there are consequences of their behaviour that’s impacting on the team’s morale, taking up your time to resolve, or causing a problem with clients, then you need to take action. 

Bring up the issue

When dealing with a difficult team member it is best to take early action and start with the lowest level of intervention that you can. If possible deal with it while saving face for the other person. You might start with distraction techniques; if someone is rambling off on a tangent in a meeting, step in and steer the course of the meeting somewhere else.


Sometimes it works to ignore the bad behaviour and focus on praising them when they do things well. This soon builds up an unconscious message to the person of what’s good and, because you do not praise the other behaviour, what’s not. 

Address it directly

If that’s not appropriate or doesn’t work then you will need to address the problem directly. Don’t do it in public, at least not at first, and address the behaviour and negative consequence of it, rather than them as a person. 

Saying ‘I’ve noticed you’ve arrived late three days this week, this is having an impact on the project because of XYZ’ is more effective than saying ‘You’re always late, you need to pull your socks up’. They are less likely to take it personally or get defensive. Tell them what you want them to do instead of the problem behaviour. This helps people to be clear on what is expected of them, not just behaviour you want them to stop.

It helps to point out the consequence to the person themselves of continuing with the behaviour rather than the impact on you or the team, as they may not care about that. Examples include: ‘It’s unlikely the senior team will agree to your proposal if you continue to communicate in that way’ or ‘If people perceive you as a gossip, they are unlikely to trust you and that will impact your career’.

Develop an escalation plan

Plan an escalation of intervention in no less than three steps, gradually becoming more overt over time. Only state consequences you are prepared to follow up on, so if you say you are going to escalate something, you must be prepared to do it or you will hand the person carte blanche to do anything they like. 

Lead by example

Finally, and most importantly, role-model behaviour you want to see in your team. People model what you do, not what you say, so make sure you practise what you want to see in others.

Karen Meager and John McLachlan are the authors of Real Leaders for the Real World and founders of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy