Dealing with dysfunctional behavior in the workplace: Doing nothing incurs enormous costs

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Dealing with dysfunctional behavior in the workplace: Doing nothing incurs enormous costs

After a few frustrating encounters with Mike, one of my mid-level managers, I suspected he was playing dumb about a key issue he should have been fully aware of. During our next one-on-one weekly meeting, when he feigned ignorance about an important detail, I quizzed him, gently but persistently, until he boxed himself into a corner. With tears running down his cheeks, he confessed he had been lying. "I'm sorry to break down," he said. "Mike," I said, "this isn't a breakdown, it's a breakthrough. Congratulations."

After composing himself, Mike explained that he was raised by a cold-hearted father. Whenever Mike did something wrong, his father relentlessly interrogated him until he extracted every last humiliating detail. Then Mike was punished mercilessly. His survival instinct quickly taught him that lying was a good form of protection. I assured Mike that this was a safe place, and he could feel free to talk about anything without fear of reprisal. The look of relief and gratitude on his face was a joy to behold.

It always astonishes me that business leaders can look the other way when an employee's personal life interferes with his work performance. Even worse is barking out orders like, "Get your act together or heads are gonna roll!" It calls to mind clueless Americans abroad who assume that the louder they speak the better the natives will understand.

Dysfunctional behavior is a deadly serious business issue, yet it's rarely dealt with. The consequences are staggering, both in the emotional toll leveled against brittle employees and in cold, hard cash. Mind-body research performed in the past decade has proven conclusively that, without intervention, emotional or psychological turmoil can weaken the body's immune system and lead to physical illness. The upshot? More absenteeism, a productivity plunge, rising health insurance costs and high turnover.


Whether it's a marital crisis, an illness in the family, or demons dragged around since childhood, everyone's personal baggage spills out at the office. Does that mean you have to be an amateur psychologist? Maybe. Consider my definition of "enlightened executive":

A tough-minded, warm-hearted, systems-disciplined leader who inspires people to actively embody the organization's mission, vision and values.

It's impossible to be a master motivator without a minimal understanding of what makes people tick. All leaders would do well to learn the basic tools psychologists use to help clients work through problems. What I gained through self-study has made all the difference. After all, I wasn't blessed from birth with the skills to recognize warning signs in the next guy, or to follow up with open-ended questions, or to coach him toward a healthier attitude and lifestyle.

Why is a column that's basically about psychological health in a business publication? Because the most troubling and potentially dangerous challenges in the workplace today aren't caused by knowledge gaps. They're caused by behavior gaps. There isn't an honest person alive who hasn't unconsciously indulged in mind games at one time or another -- defensiveness, intimidation, workaholism, sabotaging, perfectionism, exhibiting "control freak" traits, procrastination, displaced anger, victimology. Take a second to study this list. They're games being played right now by your employees, many of whom feel perfectly justified in playing hardball.

Here are two steps you can take right now:

1) Ask key employees to take a standardized psychological test (consult first with a corporate attorney). Tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator can help you interact more effectively with various personality types. As your grasp of interpersonal dynamics grows, these tests become less important.


2) Compassionately confront workers who are underperforming and over-annoying. You do it not just because you're concerned about their welfare but also, frankly, because doing nothing incurs enormous costs. Every flare-up by a drama king or queen burns productivity and peace of mind. You'll find that employees are often relieved to tell you why they've been acting up. More often than not, it doesn't demand heavy lifting from you -- just a question or two here, a suggestion or insight there. When you finally penetrate a dysfunction barricade and make caring contact with the human being on the other side, you help an employee find confidence and courage. You also strengthen your professional relationship.

Rules of engagement

Don't hesitate to speak up, whether an employee is fighting with a colleague, struggling with a personal issue, or just in a funk. "How ya feeling these days, Jenny? You sure? Feels like something's not quite right." When she acknowledges she's not on top of her game, try a little commiseration: "Yeah, we all have days like that. Any way I can help? Anything you're comfortable talking about?" Granted, some people won't budge when it comes to revealing their inner lives. That's OK. Don't force it. You'll find that a lot of people will tell you what's on their mind, as long as you follow these tips.

1. Earn trust. People will open up if they sense they can trust you. They need to know you care, and that the personal information they're sharing won't come back to them from another source. Establishing that trust begins today -- right now -- through respectful interaction. That way, when an issue does bubble up, an employee will trust that his secret will be safe with you. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell observed, "The day people stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them."

2. Stop, drop and listen. When an employee needs to talk, stop thinking about business, drop what you're doing, and give him your full attention. Brad Burley, one of our regional managers, had a three-year-old daughter who had been having earaches and developmental problems that stumped her doctors. Touring the stores one day, I asked Brad how she was doing.

"Normally, Tom was very focused on business while we were driving around," Brad recalled. "But I bet he spent an hour and a half with me sitting in a store parking lot talking about alternative medicine options and giving me the names of doctors who may be able to help.”

Brad and his wife tried a few dietary changes I suggested and noticed some progress. Eventually, their daughter's ears healed and her health improved. "That was pretty powerful," Brad said. "You know, for a leader to spend that much time talking about one of my kids, well, it was an impression that will last the rest of my life."


3. Be humble. Employees respond better to an empathetic leader than to an imperious autocrat looking down his nose as if to say, "Do what I say because I'm more successful than you." Sharing my vulnerabilities with one store manager who was going through a painful break-up -- by telling him how therapy helped me deal with my own painful divorce -- bridged the boss-employee gap and enabled us to forge a deeper connection. Imagine if I had allowed my ego to maintain the distance between us and had simply told him to go see a therapist. I doubt he would be lighting up the charts in Iowa today.

4. Eliminate barriers. Step out from behind your big, imposing, all-hail-the-boss desk and sit toe-to-toe with employees as equals. If you have two extra chairs in your office, that'll do. Or stake out neutral territory -- perhaps an empty conference room or cafeteria table.

5. Get permission. The introduction of personal issues into a workplace discussion requires -- unequivocally -- the employee's consent. How to get it? Recap the underlying performance issue, then empathize: "Any roadblocks preventing you from doing the great work we both know you're capable of?" "Are you comfortable sharing whatever's affecting your performance?" "I'm sensing there's a deeper issue at work here. How do you feel about discussing it?" My batting average was about .800. That's a far cry better than .000, which is what you'll be looking at if you don't ask how you can help.

6. Step back. It's admirable to want to help employees work through difficult issues. But remember, you're their coach, not their best friend. Be caring, be authentic, but be sure to keep a professional distance.

7. Stay objective. If you've struggled with a similar issue, don't assume your fix is universal or that your recovery timetable is relevant. Sure, your experiences are good points of reference. But recognize that the circumstances and rhythms of your employee's life created a very different animal. Proceed with caution. Be patient. And be open to her point of view.

8. Walk the talk. It's one thing to assure people they can tell you anything; to tell them you'll respond with understanding; to tell them you'll help them work things out and regain their footing. But you cripple your credibility if you respond in a way that puts the lie to your assurances. You can't be judgmental, you can't be condescending, you can't trivialize their concerns. Breach that trust even once and it'll be served up as the main course by the gossip gourmets in the office for weeks to come.


9. Do right by your teammates. Your goal as coach is to maximize each employee's value. To do that, never lose sight of the fact that her well-being takes precedence over her work responsibilities. Heresy? Only to a boss running the shop by the seat of his pants. Putting the health and happiness of employees first unquestionably benefits an organization in ways both measurable and intangible.

10. Be ready with outside resources. Sometimes you have to call in the professional. The time will come when the issue is over your head -- chemical dependency, anger management, clinical depression, marital strife, physical abuse. The first step is to subscribe to an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), a phone bank staffed by trained counselors. But don't stop there. Compile a list of programs, support groups and organizations whose mission is to help people who are severely stressed out or consumed by a full-blown crisis.

Post the list in the office (on your intranet or bulletin board) and remind people it's there. Encouraging your staff to consider outside help adds credibility to those options and may take the edge off their shame. Remember, troubled employees don't always know which way to turn. Pointing them in the right direction might be a lifesaver. As the proverb goes, "For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost."

Likewise, one employee's personal problems can set in motion a chain of events that could threaten the health of an entire organization. It's your responsibility to smash the snowball of employee personal problems before it begins rolling down the hill of neglect and picking up speed. Act wisely early or prepare to be bowled over.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company's chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.

Thanks to Tom's warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team's relentless focus on customer service, the company's turnover rate ranked among the industry's lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer's Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is already a national bestseller. It can be ordered on the home page.

Gegax can be reached via e-mail at or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).
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