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How do you manage volatile team members?

Posted on Dec 3, 2017

As a leader you need both mental toughness and emotional intelligence to handle challenging people situations that require calm, resolve and sensitivity. I observed one such situation earlier this year where one of my clients had to manage a situation with an experienced staff member, whose hugely volatile personality was threatening an otherwise stable and positive team. It was a potentially tricky situation because a poorly handled resolution would have had negative repercussions on both performance and culture.

To set the scene, her colleague had been a successful performer over a long period of time and so gradually she had allowed him a little more freedom and flexibility than his colleagues. However, in recent times his mood and behaviour had become more variable and unpredictable from day to day. One day he was funny, charming and easy to work with and the next he was the complete opposite, moody, rude and sometimes downright angry.

Not surprisingly this was upsetting most of his colleagues who didn’t know from one day to the next which person he would be. As a result they had started to avoid him, and where possible excluded him from work discussions or meetings, and certainly social events.

This created additional issues for my client beyond the unpleasant daily “walking on eggshells” ritual, it was dividing the team, damaging morale and creating friction. As a result her focus was shifting from leading the business to managing this one person, his behaviour and its impact on everyone else. The majority of our regular conversations became about him and it seemed as though it wasn’t going to right itself any time soon.

In the spirit of care and not wanting to exacerbate the situation my client hadn’t formally discussed this state of affairs with him but it was now time for her to act, otherwise her credibility as a manager was at risk.

She arranged a meeting with him and used the following plan:

Make it formal and specific, and frame it as such

She made him aware that this was a formal meeting to specifically discuss his behaviour. This ensured the meeting had focus and wouldn’t be drawn off topic.

Stay calm and objective

We had discussed the importance of this remaining a calm, objective and non-threatening conversation without emotion, even though he could easily “lose it”. She needed to listen, be empathetic and acknowledge his point of view. He could easily have become defensive and angry but as it happened he stayed calm too and seemed surprised and remorseful about the extent of the negative impact he was having on his colleagues.

Discuss the impact of his behaviour and the reasons for it

They discussed his behaviour, the reasons for his unpredictability and his level of self-awareness around the impact of his behaviour on his colleagues. There are numerous potential reasons for such behaviour including stress and frustration created at work, from difficult personal circumstances outside work, or by serious psychological or medical conditions. In this case he opened up and cited being unable to come to terms with increasing stress from a domestic situation.

Agree a plan of action

My client was able to agree a plan of action together with a timeline on how he was going to change his behaviour at work and how she would hold him accountable to this through regular and specific feedback sessions. She offered counselling and coaching services either now or in the future although he felt he would proceed without. He volunteered to “open up and apologise” for his behaviour to his colleagues at the next team meeting. This display of humility is a huge step forward in terms of rebuilding trust as people are much more prepared to forgive if someone shows remorse and authenticity. It doesn’t usually happen though because people are too proud and embarrassed to ‘go public’.

Confirm the consequences of continuing bad behaviour

Although it was a positive conversation my client also outlined the formal consequences of continued bad behaviour, so he was in no doubt that he couldn’t revert to his previous behaviour without consequences.

It has been several months now since that conversation with positive outcomes all round. The volatile team member has made a concerted effort to be more consistent and his public apology enabled him to rebuild the trust of his colleagues. The office culture and productivity improved, as did my client’s confidence in her ability to handle any similar challenge in the future. She also feels that she has earned greater respect from her team on the way she managed the situation.

It really is just common sense but often it’s difficult to see that when you are immersed in the emotion of the situation managing a colleague or indeed if it is you who are the volatile one.

Paul Lyons is the director of Mental Toughness Partners and an experienced CEO who coaches leaders to improve their performance and wellbeing by developing their mindset.