Today, managers have to deal with any number of “beastly” employees. Like it or not, there will always be some difficult employees in the work force. Our goal must be to manage them effectively, change their behavior, and minimize their negative impacts.
Here is a list of commonly found “beastly” employees, with descriptions of their behavior and suggested strategies for coping with them.
SLY SNAKES are menaces to other employees and pose a serious threat to group morale. They work by innuendo, not-too subtle digs, and non-playful teasing. Their message is, “Pretend that what I’m doing/saying is nice—or that you don’t even hear me.” It’s tempting to join them in laughing at someone. They feel superior and act like they know more than others.
Strategy: Do not directly challenge. Surface the attack, smoke them out: “That sounds like a dig. Is it?” or “I saw your thumbs down. Do you disagree with me?” Expect them to laugh it off and back down.
RAGING BULLS are overly sensitive to any perceived criticism and easily feel threatened. They have adult temper tantrums. Their striking out is spontaneous, not planned.
Strategy: Help them regain self-control. Often, they will wind down by themselves. They get totally carried away, so you need to get their attention: sit down, or stand up suddenly and shout their name. If necessary, interrupt, e.g., by saying “Right! Right!” Show your good intentions: “I know this is important to you, and it is for me, too.” If nothing else works, take a break. If necessary, walk out, saying “I’ll be back.”
HOWLER MONKEYS are constantly complaining. They whine, act self-righteous, and blame and accuse others. They usually howl, sound defeated, and seem to believe nothing will ever get better. Often, there is some substance to their complaint. They feel powerless but know exactly how things should be.
Strategy: The aim is to switch them to problem solving. Listen attentively—which might not be easy. Do not placate or become defensive. Acknowledge any valid points. Show that you understand their feelings. Interrupt if necessary. Limit their “always” and “nevers.” Do not admit any wrong-doing and avoid defensiveness. Ask them to gather data to help clarify/fix the problem or complaint. Ask them: “Have you discussed this with the person you’re complaining about? Can I tell him/her of your complaint?” If they refuse, say,“Well, if you change your mind, let me know.” That leaves it in the howler’s court.
SILENT CLAMS might say “yep” or “nope” or “maybe,” or they may grunt or shrug and say nothing. Often these clams are very guilt-prone. Sometimes they are really passive aggressive, knowing they irk you.
Strategy: Your task is to get them to talk. Ask open-ended questions. Use a friendly, silent stare; wait them out. Comment on what’s happening: “I expected you to say something but you didn’t; what does that mean?” or “I’m waiting, you’re silent, how do we get out of this bind?” Try, “Can you tell me why you’re silent? Are you concerned about my reaction? Are you feeling irritated/worried/uncomfortable, etc.?” Set a time limit. If they say, “I don’t know.” Say, “What else?” and treat it as a non response, keeping a friendly stare. Don’t give up: indicate you’ll raise the subject again. You could try, “I assume your silence means you agree.”
LOVABLE PUSSYCATS will tell you whatever you want to hear—then let you down. They’ll promise anything to avoid conflict even if they don’t intend to or can’t deliver. They never give honest criticism. They need to feel approved of. It often works for them i.e., keeps them popular, at least for a while. They can’t be candid for fear of losing your love.
Strategy: Instead of asking “What’s bad about that (project, report, procedure, …) say “Which parts were not as good as the rest?” Be personal: admire their clothes, their pictures, whatever, but be sincere, since they’re very sensitive. If they are sure of your positive regard, they’ll be more willing to voice their objections. If they make unrealistic commitments, remind them of your more realistic expectations. Be ready to compromise. When even a mild, indirect criticism is offered, thank him/her, show that you can take it!
BILLYGOATS respond to every idea with “it won’t work.” They always feel there’s nothing they can do, believe they have no power over their own lives. At group meetings they create a sense of helplessness. They believe others don’t care and won’t rebut them.
Strategy: Do not get drawn in. State your own optimism. Avoid direct argument. Ask lots of why, where, how questions, so it becomes more problem solving, less pure defeatism. Ask, “What’s the worst if we did . . . ?” The negativism of these goats is contagious. Be careful and be ready to go it alone.
WISE OLD ELEPHANTS are highly productive, thorough, careful, follow through completely—they really are experts about the subject. But they have a tone of absolute certainty and others resent them, so they tend to elicit passive resistance. They show that they don’t want/need others’ inputs. If they fail, it’s seen as the fault of those “incompetents” who carried it out. Their security is in knowing all the facts and figures. Strategy: Try to get them to consider alternatives to their own views—without challenging their expertise. Make adequate preparations. Listen and paraphrase their ideas. Never directly challenge. They may allow questions and suggestions. Beware of your own tendency to be a know-it-all elephant. Sometimes, just swallow hard and accept.
MOCKING BIRDS will speak authoritatively on any subject—whether or not they know anything about it. They have an overwhelming need to be admired and respected and may not know they’re not experts. They’re curious, pick up lots of trivia, assume they know all about it.
Strategy: One way to manage them is to let them pontificate; help them feel good. Alternatively, you can forcefully present the true facts and make them look like fools, which may embarrass them and perhaps make an enemy of them—so it’s probably is not a good coping strategy. Instead, state the correct facts objectively. Let them save face. Mocking birds must be dealt with in private.
In an ideal world, all employees would be friendly, cooperative, hard working, and eager to please. In the real world, managers have to deal with all kinds of difficult employees. By recognizing what kinds of “beasts” they have, and following the strategies suggested here, managers can help turn these difficult ones into more pleasant and productive employees.
Besides his clinical work and university teaching, Martin Seidenfeld, Ph.D., provides consulting to organizations on management issues and on managing organizational stress.