4 triggers of poor employee behaviour and how to prevent them

Humans are social creatures. Over the millennia of our existence, we’ve formed collaborative societies that have specific responsibilities for individuals. Many of these are hierarchical communities, where responsibility is rewarded by status and privilege. In workplaces, these symbols include job titles, parking spaces, office size, and deference to one’s expertise and experience, writes Zoë Routh

Poor employee behaviour has a huge cost. Challenging behaviours deemed ‘toxic’ include ostracism, incivility, harassment, and bullying. These can lead to workplace burnout, a condition officially identified in 2019 by the Word Health Organisation as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. Workplaces are causing employees harm and the problem is pervasive.

The effect extends to organisational results. As one of the toxic behaviours, ‘incivility’ includes insults, rudeness, and teasing. In a poll of a poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, the impact of ‘incivility’, counted the following (Porath and Person, 2013):

  • 48 per cent intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47 per cent intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38 per cent intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80 per cent lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63 per cent lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 66 per cent said that their performance declined.
  • 78 per cent said that their commitment to the organisation declined.
  • 12 per cent said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.
  • 25 per cent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.

Additional poor behaviours range from turf wars, silos, emotional ranting, backbiting, and white-anting. The intent is not always malicious. Poor behaviour sometimes occurs through thoughtlessness or lack of self-awareness.

Leaders need to be mindful of status symbols and what is prized by individuals. Not everyone values a parking space, but those who do, treasure it.

What causes good humans to behave badly? There are four key triggers that activate problematic behaviour. The overarching theme is fear of loss. Our primal animal response is wired to avoid deprivation: we experience it as a survival threat. Just watch a toddler act up when you take a toy they’d been ignoring all morning! The object suddenly becomes the most coveted item in the room. We don’t want to lose anything, no matter how inconsequential.

Loss of Power
In his book, Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink lists three factors that make work engaging: autonomy, purpose, and mastery. When someone makes a decision that affects us, and we had no involvement in the process, this can prompt a defensive reaction. Our autonomy is compromised. We can become argumentative, critical, and negative.

Leaders need to be mindful and explicit about how decisions are made and communicated. Being as inclusive and consultative as possible can help decrease the sense of powerlessness. Transparency in decision-making can reduce criticism, even if the decision itself is difficult.

Simple rituals like weekly team meetings, acknowledging individuals, and occasional celebrations of milestones – both personal and professional – can go a long way to galvanising team cohesion.

Loss of Position
Humans are social creatures. Over the millennia of our existence, we’ve formed collaborative societies that have specific responsibilities for individuals. Many of these are hierarchical communities, where responsibility is rewarded by status and privilege. In workplaces, these symbols include job titles, parking spaces, office size, and deference to one’s expertise and experience. Threat to our position in the group, perceived or real, activates a primal emotional response. Ever been in a meeting where your expertise was dismissed or glossed over? The rise of red-faced anger is often the result. Emotional ranting can follow, as can vengeful backbiting and resentment.

How we recognise and appreciate individuals and teams is critical to avoiding sensitive responses. When we reassure others that they are valued and appreciated, it helps keep tempers even. Leaders need to be mindful of status symbols and what is prized by individuals. Not everyone values a parking space, but those who do, treasure it.

Loss of Performance
As Pink explains, being able to master a skill or role is critical to our sense of job satisfaction. Too many commitments can threaten our ability to perform. When an individual feels overwhelmed, they will put their head down and retreat to their silo. Collaboration ceases, communication stagnates. This will frustrate others who are dependent on their interaction.

Leaders need to be mindful of their delegation and coaching strategy. Does the employee have trouble saying ‘no’? Does the employee have a skills gap that is impeding performance? Silos are often a symptom of overwhelm rather than deliberate selfishness.

Being as inclusive and consultative as possible can help decrease the sense of powerlessness. Transparency in decision-making can reduce criticism, even if the decision itself is difficult.

Loss of Place
Of all the triggers, loss of place and a sense of belonging are the most hurtful. We experience social exclusion as physical pain. We retreat into our shell and shut down in self-protection. We are sensitive and morose. Others may avoid us because of our unhappy demeanour, further alienating us.

One of the primary responsibilities of leaders is to create safety and a sense of belonging for team members. Simple rituals like weekly team meetings, acknowledging individuals, and occasional celebrations of milestones – both personal and professional – can go a long way to galvanising team cohesion.

Humans are sensitive. The more we become aware of what matters to us: power, position, place, and performance, the easier it will be to plan workplace interactions that are uplifting rather than corrosive.

Image Source: Pexels