7 Tips for Addressing the What vs. How Debate in the Workplace

Bad Behavior in the Workplace
While it may seem obvious that people understand how to behave toward each other at work, I’m frequently reminded by my clients’ and my own work experiences that it’s simply not the case.
Let’s look at two separate situations involving the vice president of a top financial company and the managing attorney of a law firm who were both fired by their respective companies after repeated counseling to stop making certain types of derogatory jokes and comments.
What makes these two situations so memorable isn’t how high up these individuals were in their organizations or even their failure to change their behavior after being specifically told to do so.
Instead, I was stunned that both of these individuals had exactly the same reaction to their termination: “If this behavior you are describing is what you are firing me for, then you’re right – I don’t belong here because I still don’t understand what you are talking about.”
Recently, one of my clients asked me, “What do you do when you have a to-performer who annihilates everyone in the process of reaching our goals?” Thirty people were in the room. Even though no one mentioned names, everyone immediately recognized who was being talked about.
“I know we’re not talking about people specifically,” one person chimed in, “but what do you do when a person repeatedly cuts people down and leaves us all speechless?” Another offered: “The person performs at such a high level, that it’s unlikely anything will change.” And another person added, “It seems like we’re all supposed to act one way and ignore how this one other person behaves, but it’s really hard to support him.”
In every organization, there is usually one person who triggers the same age-old debate:
What priority does an organization place on what a person delivers versus how those results are achieved?
It’s usually not because their behavior is so bad, but because their overall performance is so stellar or they are so highly placed within the organization.
These are the big shots, the rainmakers, the king pins, the boss. Were it anyone else, someone who performed at a more moderate level, people would be willing to step in to address unacceptable behavior.
Why big shots and others continue to misbehave on the job is a quandary that my boss, Stephen Paskoff, president of ELI, Inc., wrote about in his book, Teaching Big Shots to Behave (and Other Human Resource Challenges), and one that he continues to explore in recent blog posts such as Matters of Judgment Can Be Taught.
What is the cost of bad behavior?
A handful of New York Times bestsellers in the last couple of years have tried to answer that simple question, and have arrived at the same answer.
For organizations, the quantifiable cost of tolerating bad behavior nearly always exceeds the revenue contributions of so-called rainmakers. The negative impacts include public relations, reputation and litigation risk, turnover, employee disengagement, absenteeism, low morale, sabotage, unnecessary overtime, duplication of efforts, the list goes on.
But the challenge is: How can you confront top performers when their bad behavior may have been tolerated for a very long time?
Here are my 7 tips for addressing bad behavior in the workplace:

  1. Select the right messenger(s). The person who delivers the message must have positional authority, conviction about the changes being requested, and must be an established model of the corrective behaviors being requested. In many cases, the best messenger may not be the person’s immediate supervisor, particularly if that person may have been complicit in allowing or participating in unacceptable behavior.
  2. Gather information. Be ready to provide specific examples of unacceptable behavior – without putting others at risk who have offered input or made complaints.
  3. Reaffirm the values of the organization and describe why they are important.
  4. Explain the potential risks and consequences in the event things do not change
  5. Offer a coach or mentor (either internal or external) who can work one-on-one with the person who needs to change.
  6. Follow up to evaluate progress. In the process, be sure to communicate that how results are delivered really does matter.
  7. Take action. Ultimately, some people simply won’t get it or won’t agree with the changes being requested. In the interest of organizational integrity and out of respect for everyone who works with someone who engages in unacceptable behavior, be prepared to cut your losses in the short-term in exchange for the long-term benefits to your culture and employees.
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