Why we tolerate awful behaviour at work

I don’t know any perfect people. And I am certainly not perfect myself. So, I am a big believer in allowing colleagues to be human. 

But I am horrified when I hear stories of managers and team members with a long history of atrocious, disrespectful behaviour or very poor performance, whose behaviour has been tolerated for way too long. 

People tend to give very good reasons for not taking action. These include: 

  1. Feeling intimidated: It can be very hard speaking with your manager when you are intimidated by them. But I hear many stories of people who summon the courage to have honest, up-front conversations with their manager. Often, such directness, when done respectfully and the problems are defined in face-saving ways, can produce a better outcome for the future. Building a relationship, over time, with the person you feel intimidated by, can also help you to better understand and feel more comfortable speaking with them.
  2. Fear of escalated behaviour: This is probably one of the most common concerns people have. The good news is that most of what we worry about never occurs. So, it is often more helpful to expect the best, but prepare for the worst, just in case. If the person has a track record of behaving poorly when spoken to, this at least gives you a chance to consider how you might reduce the risk of escalated behaviour or respond well if they act true to form. Remember that escalated behaviour of all types has been seen before. So, people who are experienced in performance management will be good sources of advice. 
  3. We don’t feel supported in taking action: This, I believe, can be a bigger problem than the problem performer themselves. However, senior management are not mind-readers. So, you may have to let them know what you need. Certainly, senior management are likely to be more supportive when they are aware of actions you have taken to address the situation. Here your personal records of the problem performer’s behaviour and what you have done to turn the situation around will be helpful. 
  4. Poor confidence in using grievance or performance management procedures: Here, it is important you familiarize yourself with your workplace’s Code of Conduct, grievance and performance management policies as well as any Award the person is covered by. There are also others, such as Human Resources Officers, Industrial Relations Officers, and the Fair Work Commission who can give you specialist advice and support. Generally, the more information and support you have, the more confident you will be in your approach. 
  5. Too much compassion: Often, we know that a person’s poor behaviour is partly explained by pressures at work or significant personal challenges. We are right to be less offended and to make reasonable adjustments for their situation. However, reasonable adjustments by us need to also be matched with reasonable expectations of their behaviour. There are some behaviours that are not acceptable in any workplace, irrespective of their cause. 
  6. We think they won’t change: Yes, there are certainly some people who refuse to change or who lack a capacity for change. However, this type of thinking is self-defeating, discouraging us from exploring different ways of influencing change. Even when we doubt a person’s capacity for change, we often still need to demonstrate to senior management that we have taken all reasonable steps. 
  7. We think it is all too hard: There is no doubt that taking decisive action does come at a cost in terms of our time, our stress levels, and sometimes our sleep. But so does inaction. Ultimately, difficulties that are not addressed can escalate into increased sick leave, formal grievances, unnecessary staff turnover, and a negative workplace culture. We may have to remind ourselves of the costs of not taking action, get training on how to manage such situations well, and then gain support from others who are skilled in handling difficult conversations well.

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