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Managing Disruptive Employees

Business owners and managers sometimes need to pause their intense market attention and focus internally to mitigate workforce risk and ensure employees are delivering to plan. Disruptive employees or "obstructionists" can damage a company just like any other business risk. What might have once been a well-performing group of employees can seemingly turn into a renegade band of individuals where no one cares what happens in the future as long as salaries are paid.

Chess board with frustrated king

Of course, it's ultimately the business manager's responsibility to be aware and vigilant of employee attitudes and needs. When teamwork breaks down within the organization, the stage is set for disruptive employees to become the focal point rather than the corporate goals. Managers need to lead proactively and focus on clear expectations with open/honest communication.

Of course, circumstances that have nothing to do with the business might be the root cause of the employee's discontentment…family, financial, health issues, etc. Regardless of the source of unhappiness, management must properly and promptly handle disruptive employees, so the organizational culture and productivity are not negatively impacted.

Consider the following ways to handle difficult, disruptive employees:

Be Patient and Maintain Composure

Toxic employees will look for any opportunity to express frustration, intimidate, or be aggressive with anyone they are communicating with at the moment. They spend more time complaining than collaborating. Rather than being provoked into an argument that can probably never be won, it's important for owners and managers to be patient and maintain composure. The idea is to reduce tensions not elevate the bad situation. Remember, such employee aren't looking for resolution, they're looking for an argument.

Be Swift and Direct

It's time to lead folks. Strong and clear communication is a necessity. Dealing with a disruptive employee is not a time for procrastination or innuendos. Employees must understand performance expectations and the consequences of their actions - both good and bad. When employees do not have strong, clear guidance, they are more inclined to test the limits to see exactly what will be tolerated; accountability is a must. Strong, direct communication and compliant behaviors are interrelated.

Be Proactive

Think about what can be done to improve the work environment on both sides; be proactive in actions rather than reactive. Follow up words with supporting action. As the saying goes, "You have exactly the organization you want, because it's the one you tolerate." This is a time to depersonalize the situation and focus on improvement.

Remove the Spotlight

Disruptive employees crave spotlight. It's their time to shine and get attention. It is much more productive to work with employees with positive attitudes that can help a business achieve its goals. The time must come when toxic employees need to either get “on board” or introduced to a timely exit. The spotlight should be on the activities that are moving the business in a positive direction.

Be Consistent

All employees must be handled the same. Boxing gloves cannot be used on some while kid gloves are used on others. Rewards and praise need to be given for superior performance, as well as consequences for poor performance and bad attitudes. Good employees resent unequal treatment while the toxic employees relish inconsistent behavior of management.

No matter the causation, the situation must be resolved before it consumes the rest of the business unit or organization. It will not fix itself. Be fair, communicate clearly, and act promptly to bring the needed change. Hopefully the suggestions above provide you with a place to start.

OnTarget Strategy is a business management and strategy consultancy based in Boulder, CO. We help business leaders across many diverse markets bring positive change and action to organizational planning and operations. Interested in talking more? Reach out to us at or check us out at

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