‘Problematic’ people

People often ask me what a manager or a team can do about someone who won’t cooperate. The type of problematic individual who behaves ‘antisocially’ (whatever that may mean), who constantly says ‘Yes but…’ (and really means ‘No’), who says ‘Yes’ but does ‘No’ (you can’t count on him), etc. Do you punish him, ostracise him, give him specific tasks to perform or simply ignore him? I would say none of the above because they are all based on a negative approach. The ‘Babemba tribe’ in South Africa has chosen a fundamentally different solution. In their culture, if a person behaves unreasonably or irresponsibly, he is taken to the centre of the village. Work in the village stops completely and every man, woman and child gathers round in a big circle around this individual. Then, one by one, every member of the tribe addresses the ‘accused’. They mention all the good things this person has done in his life. Every event and every experience that is recalled is told in great detail and with extreme care. All his positive character traits, good deeds, strengths and friendliness are extensively described and praised. This ritual can go on for days. Finally, a song is sung that is appropriate to that person, the circle is broken, and a joyous celebration takes place with the person being both symbolically and literally welcomed anew into the tribe.

What we can learn from this tribe is that the ‘correction’ of undesirable behaviour does not lie in punishment, but rather in the loving approach, and reminding the individual of their own identity. If someone acknowledges himself as well as unconditionally accepting himself, the compulsion to rebel against the other person disappears. The question is: to what degree can we (or do we want to) apply this method? I am convinced that if you continue to look at people from a positive viewpoint, however difficult that may be at times, this investment will automatically pay dividends. After all, everybody is born positive and is naturally motivated. The fact that circumstances exist which result in someone losing this ability doesn’t mean that that person is unwilling. So instead of saying that it’s ‘the other person’ who’s problematic, develop the curiosity to know more about him. What motivates him, what causes him to behave the way you see him behaving? And you might then come to a totally different conclusion!

Perhaps it has something to do with vague or bad agreements in the working environment. Research has shown that if inside the organisation or department a vagueness exists with respect to the common goal, tasks and roles, or procedures and work agreements, this results in a team that does not work well together and leads to ‘problematic’ employees. For example, if two or more people make choices based on different goals (and they are not aware of this) then sooner or later problems will arise. People do not understand each other’s choices, they have an opinion about them, and if they are not talked about this can lead to bad relationships. The negative feelings that people then have with respect to each other are real, but they are ultimately symptoms of bad coordination. However, in practice the ‘blame’ is easily placed on the employee: he is reluctant, refuses to cooperate, doesn’t want anything, is a nuisance, etc. On the other hand… sometimes you have people who are just a nuisance. Watch this film lasting 90 seconds for one example.

If you are having problems with a badly functioning team or ‘problematic’ employees, then ask yourself these three questions.

  1. Firstly, ask yourself whether within your department and with your employees clarity and acceptance exists concerning the common goals. These goals form the basis of commitment, provide direction and bind the people within your department. It is the foundation for all the activities that need to be carried out.
  2. The second question concerns the clarity of the agreements with respect to tasks and roles. Is it clear for everyone what results they are responsible for, what their specific core tasks are, but also what everyone’s contribution is with respect to other team members and to the whole process? It is essential here that expectations with respect to someone else’s task and role are well defined. The expectations that are left unspecified will engender vagueness and resistance in the long run, reducing the collaboration within the team, and draining energy.
  3. The third and last question has to do with clarity concerning how the team comes to decisions and results. Have procedures and work agreements been made with respect to mutual cooperation? And how do people deal with the natural field of tension that exists with respect to society as a whole and the need for individual freedom within it?

The challenge this time for the coming weeks is not to label employees as ‘problematic’, but to look for those places within the structure that are not clearly outlined, which lead to ‘problematic’ behaviour. Of course this principle applies just as well to how you interact with colleagues, friends, family members, team members, etc. So before you also start labelling the people outside your work environment as ‘problematic’: reflect on these three questions.

Have fun with ‘problematic’ people!

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