The No Fear Approach To Handling A Combative Employee

As a new manager, you’re glad to have Chris on your team. He seems like an ideal employee: smart, experienced and gets things done. There’s just one problem. He disagrees with you and his co-workers at every turn. It’s to the point where the mere sound of his tread approaching your desk makes you cringe and wish you wore armor.

In meetings, he challenges your and others’ ideas and has been known to shout and pound the table. Citing his many years in the industry, he corrects you in front of your boss and during teleconferences with suppliers. Chris’s team mates complain that it’s his way or the highway. He’ll either argue with them until he wears them down or do what he wants anyway.

You’ve tried listening to him to see whether he’s raising valid issues that need to be addressed. Sometimes he does but often he argues against any action that doesn’t conform to his ideas of the “right and best” way to do things. The notion that another approach might be as good as or better than his never crosses his mind.

Chris’s aggression usually wins the day because no one wants to take him on. Team morale is low and one of your best workers is threatening to quit if you don’t do something about Chris.

You’ve thought about taking corrective action but Chris is one of the division’s top performers and your boss thinks highly of him.

The worst part is you’ve started to doubt your own competence in the face of Chris’s repeated barrages against new ideas. It feels personal like he’s questioning your ability to lead.
Despite the fact Chris meets functional performance objectives his behavior is reducing overall team effectiveness and productivity. Forget about creativity and innovation.

You know you have to do something but you’re nervous. Chances are he’s been getting away with his combative approach for years. What can you do differently that hasn’t been tried by your predecessors?

You can use your ‘newbie manager’ status to your advantage. Being new means people expect you to do things differently; they expect change. Capitalize on that. The key to building your confidence is a 3-step process: learn calming techniques, prepare and rehearse.

Know how to remain calm and firm.

Facing someone who is frequently argumentative and closed to other points of view is frustrating. It’s a natural inclination to become defensive. You either want to fight back or avoid the person altogether.

Avoidance is not an effective strategy in this case. As a manager, you have an obligation to try to do something about Chris’s inappropriate aggression. Inaction, as you’ve seen with regard to team morale and productivity is costly. Those costs translate into hard dollars—one estimate has it at over 350 billion dollars in paid hours (yes, with a ‘B’).

Arguing is not effective either. Argument has drama and energy. There’s an excitement to it that is infectious. If you decide to fight, it’s like getting on a hamster wheel—you go round and round with it. You get dizzy and less able to think clearly. Your emotional brain takes over and you’re likely to say things you might regret later. Not only don’t you address the problem, you help make it worse.

The good news is you can make things better because calm begets calm.

Practice calming yourself in any stressful situation and you’ll be able to handle Chris without fear.

Once they’re a habit, these steps only take a moment.

  1. In your mind’s eye, visualize a relaxing place—somewhere you feel at peace.
  2. Breathe slowly from your diaphragm.
  3. Tell intrusive and fearful thoughts, “Later.”
  4. Say, “Calm,” and repeat until you begin to feel it.

Follow these steps before you meet with Chris. Repeat them during your meeting as necessary or whenever you need to calm yourself. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell Chris (or anyone), “Give me a moment to think.”

Prepare your approach.

Now that you know how to calm yourself, prepare your game plan for how you’ll address Chris’s combative behavior. Don’t feel like you have to do this alone. Call your HR representative for advice and to make sure you’re following company protocols.

Develop clear behavioral goals. What do you want Chris to stop doing and what should he start doing? It is insufficient to tell someone to stop a behavior without suggesting a replacement for it. Identify no more than three related behaviors you want changed. For example, shouting, acting counter to a team decision, and correcting you and team mates in public.

You might say, “When you correct me in front of our suppliers during a conference call, you undermine not only me but also the reputation of our team. We appear unprofessional and unprepared. From now on, we will meet in advance of a call and agree on our position. I expect you to go along with it on the call. If you have a problem, take it offline with me.”

Write down specific examples and the negative impact of the behavior you want to change.
What happens when Chris shouts at team members? Why is it a problem when he acts counter to team agreements? What is the cost to Chris, to the team and to the organization as a whole?
Identify counter attacks to your examples.

Identify what Chris could say in response. He might insist that his experience trumps others opinions. He’ll likely point out his success on other performance indicators. He might become belligerent and start shouting at you. Expect and prepare for the fact that Chris will try to defend himself.

Prepare at least two strategies for handling defensive counter attacks.

Ask for help. Talk with an HR representative or, if you have access to one, a mediator to get suggestions. Include strategies for how to remain calm yet firm. Write down what you will say. Consider your tone of voice and physical posture. Develop a contingency plan if things don’t go as planned the first time out. Expect this to take more than one meeting.

Plan what you will do when (not if) Chris resorts to his old behaviors. You need intervention strategies to let him know those behaviors will no longer be tolerated. Don’t rely on your gut. Effective intervention is a skill set and you can learn it.

Rehearse your responses.

Now that you have a plan of action, rehearse it. Use your HR representative or a trusted peer colleague (but not your direct reports). At a minimum, rehearse it in your mind’s eye.
Mental rehearsal builds confidence. Action (and how you improve from lessons learned) cements it.

“When you choose to visualize the path that works, you’re more likely to shore it up and create an environment where it can take place.” — Seth Godin

Implement your plan.

It may not go perfectly the first time. That’s okay. Tweak your approach and keep working it. Your team will notice and appreciate your efforts. Eventually, Chris will realize you’re determined. If he attempts to change, acknowledge it.

Remember, you were promoted into management because someone believes in your abilities. You can do this.

(About the Author: Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. is the founder of Conflict Tango whose mission is to help people reduce stress and increase confidence in conflict situations. She is the author of a FREE eBook with 26 ways to do just that: Conflict to Creativity from A to Z. Jagoda brings her passion and 20+ years of leadership development experience to teaching leaders how to combine creativity and conflict management skills to empower innovative solutions. Connect with Jagoda on LinkedIn or on Google + here.)

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