How to Defuse Bad Behavior in the Workplace

Rewarding employee misconduct will only ensure it continues

Posted by Dr. Pat Pitsel in Human Resources on August 27th, 2012

All of us, if sufficiently provoked, will react. Some have the patience of a saint while others are not only hot reactors, they are nuclear reactors.

So how can we manage a work relationship when we have a colleague or boss who explodes at the slightest apparent provocation, without wimping out or giving in at a cost to our integrity and our pride?

Did you ever notice that most people who frequently lose their cool seldom do it with people who are much senior to them in the organization?
First, it is helpful to understand that while it may be natural for some to be quicker off the mark than others (some people are sprinters; others, marathoners to be sure), people who exhibit bad behavior do so because they can.

Did you ever notice that most people who frequently lose their cool seldom do it with people who are much senior to them in the organization? They almost always lose their cool with peers or with subordinates.

3 Reasons for Bad Behavior

And why do they do this? The simple answer is “because it works”.

  1. They get their way: People learn to tiptoe around them, not to say “no” to them, not to disagree with them and, in general, treat them with kid gloves. The only negative consequence that seems to ensue is that people avoid them.
  2. They don’t care: A second reason may be because their major motivators are not good work relationships. It is more important for them to get results, whatever it takes to get those results than it is to maintain friends or be friendly with those who stand between them and the outcomes they want to achieve.
  3. They can’t help it: And finally there are those (fortunately a much smaller percentage) who may suffer from a neurological disorder with a marked deficit in impulse control. They are easier to spot right away because they “lose it” with everyone, regardless of position, authority, power or potential consequences.

Rule of Consequences

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Now, a quick word here about consequences. A consequence is something, that by definition, changes behaviour. If you do something in response to a person’s behaviour and that person continues to do whatever s/he was doing, then your response, even if it is negative, (as far as you are concerned) is not a consequence.

Here’s the “rule”:

  • Positive consequences (positive insofar as the person who is experiencing the consequence is concerned) increase behavior (or maintain it at the current rate).
  • Negative consequences (again, negative to the recipient) reduce or even eliminate the behavior.

If we reward bad behavior by giving in, becoming silent, trying to appease them and give them what they want every time they explode (give positive consequences) why are we surprised that the person continues to explode.

How to Change Behavior

In order to change the behavior of other people we have to change our behavior. We can do this by letting people know what the consequences of their continuing this unacceptable behavior will be.

The next time you run into an exploder, try the following. Hold up your hand (French traffic cop style) and say in a firm voice, “Stop!” Don’t scream or shout, but say it with sufficient force and emphasis that the other person will hear you.

Then state calmly what you are willing to do in the “do want, don’t want” format. That sounds like: “I do want to resolve this problem; I don’t want to be threatened or yelled at.”

If that doesn’t work, then you must be ready with a more impactful consequence which might sound something like: “I do want to get this problem solved. If we cannot resolve this without your yelling then I will have to go to H.R. and lay a complaint.”

But of course never threaten something that you are not willing to carry through on.


Pat Pitsel
Pat Pitsel

Psychologist, Educator and Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., is a psychologist and educator. Pat received her M.Sc.Ed. from Fordham University, New York City, and her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Pitsel's enthusiasm and sense of humour have made her a frequent speaker at conferences and conventions where she has been known to keep people awake for several minutes at a time.