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Managing Difficult Employees: Identifying and Addressing Corrosive Team Influences

While most employees diligently work to meet organizational goals and support their coworkers, difficult employees who undermine team dynamics can have profoundly negative effects. When left unaddressed, even one "bad apple" is capable of spoiling the whole barrel by spreading negativity, lowering morale, and hampering productivity (Sias, 2005). As leaders, identifying and constructively dealing with problematic influences is critical for maintaining a cohesive, high-performing culture.


Today we will examine how toxic employee behaviors corrupt teams and offers practical strategies leaders in any industry can employ. It will explore the warning signs of corrosive influences, discuss root causes, and make recommendations for intervention and prevention.


Identifying Corrosive Influences

Research shows that disruptive employees sabotage team dynamics through specific behaviors. Sias (2005) outlines key signs of problematic influences:


  • Complaints and gossiping: Chronic complaining or spreading rumors demoralizes others.

  • Lack of cooperation: Refusal to collaborate or assist coworkers with tasks hampers productivity.

  • Poor attitude: Overt negativity, cynicism, or hostility toward management, policies, or team goals is off-putting.

  • Blaming others: Refusing responsibility and shifting blame for mistakes undermines accountability.

  • Rule violations: Intentional noncompliance with procedures or standards sets a poor example.

  • No accountability: Consistently missing deadlines or shirking responsibilities strains resources.


These "toxic traits" manifest differently across contexts but invariably damage team functioning if left unaddressed (Johnson, 2018). Leaders must be vigilant for such warning signs and their corrosive impacts.


Underlying Root Causes

Problematic employees often act out due to internal struggles rather than malice alone. Research-based intervention requires understanding root causes (Gardner et al., 2016). Common factors fueling toxic behaviors include:


  • Personal issues: Mental health issues, family problems, or substance abuse which affect performance.

  • Lack of skills: Employees may lack proper qualifications, training, or abilities for their roles.

  • Poor fit: Personality or workstyle clashes leave some employees perpetually dissatisfied.

  • Abuse of power: Some seek control over others through passive-aggression or overt hostility.

  • Discontentment: Dismay over tasks, pay, promotions etc. breeds resentment if left unaddressed.


Considering motivations dispels assumptions and humanizes issues. This insight guides compassionate yet accountable discussions between leaders and employees.


Intervening with Disruptive Influences

Once warning signs and root issues are identified, leaders must intervene constructively. Johnson (2018) recommends a three-step approach:


  1. Private discussion: Schedule a private meeting to outline observed behaviors factually, discuss impacts, and hear the employee's perspective. Clarify expectations professionally yet empathetically based on root issues.

  2. Performance plan: For ongoing or unaddressed issues, draft a formal performance improvement plan with behavioral modification goals, managerial support offered, and consequences for noncompliance defined. Include employee input.

  3. Progress monitoring: Consistently track plan compliance and address slip-ups proactively through additional training, schedule adjustments, or if needed - disciplinary action up to termination. Celebrate successes.


The goal is long-term positive change through accountability and support, not punishment. Respect, clear communication, and documenting a good faith effort to assist the employee are important.


Preventing Toxic Influences

While intervention handles current issues, prevention protects future team integrity. Research shows establishing a supportive, collaborative culture deters the development of corrosive behaviors (Schyns et al., 2018). Leaders can:


  • Foster two-way communication through regular performance reviews and open-door policies.

  • Promote professional development, fair compensation, and work-life balance initiatives.

  • Set clear behavioral expectations and lead by positive example.

  • Recognize team contributions to boost motivation and morale.

  • Address employee concerns, conflicts or skill deficiencies proactively.

  • Vet new hires thoroughly for cultural fit and qualifications.

  • Monitor for signs of trouble and act immediately according to policy.


Prioritizing employee well-being and involvement mitigates factors fueling disruptive behaviors while building loyalty and cooperation.


Conclusion

While one difficult employee poses risks to team cohesion, constructive leadership prevents toxic influences from destroying organizational success. By understanding destructive behaviors, their motivations, and using research-backed intervention strategies empathetically yet firmly, leaders can positively address performance issues. With preventive cultural initiatives also in place, companies foster highly collaborative environments where all employees thrive. The result protects investments in human capital while empowering professionals to perform at their best.


References


  • Gardner, D. G., Cummings, L. L., Dunham, R. B., & Pierce, J. L. (1998). Single-item versus multiple-item measurement scales: An empirical comparison. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 58(6), 898–915. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013164498058006001

  • Johnson, S. K. (2018). Red tape and toxic employees: An examination of the impact of excessive rules. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(2), 162–176. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/10.1002/job.2214

  • Sias, P. M. (2005). Workplace relationship quality and employee information experiences. Communication Studies, 56(4), 375–395. https://doi.org/10.1080/10510970500319450

  • Schyns, B., Torka, N., & Gössling, T. (2007). Turnover intention and preparedness for change: Exploring leader-member exchange and occupational self-efficacy as antecedents of two facets of turnover intention. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 28(7), 660-677. https://doi.org/10.1108/01437730710824666

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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