We can’t fire him, so how do we inspire him?

We have an employee who is always convinced he’s right. It’s so fundamental to his personality that he refuses to take direction

Faith Wood knows how to resolve conflict. Her years in front-line law enforcement taught her how to effectively de-escalate any situation to a successful conclusion. Faith will use her knowledge of conflict management to guide you through the often stressful experiences you may encounter in your personal or professional life. Her Conflict Coach column appears regularly.

Faith WoodQuestion: We have an employee who is always convinced he’s right. It’s so fundamental to his personality that he refuses to take direction. Any suggestions by others, including from his managers, are ignored or discounted. He has an inflated sense of his worth to the organization to the point where he acts like the operation revolves around him (it doesn’t).

In addition, he treats any advice or suggestions about ways to improve on his work as harsh criticism. He immediately goes on the defensive, then quickly becomes aggrieved and even more obstinate.

His previous employer basically put him in a corner and ignored him to minimize his disruption in the workplace (this went on for a couple of decades). Now he’s part of a startup group at our workplace, with shares conferred as part of the launch. That means he can’t just be dismissed, even though his attitude and the quality of his work suggest he should be.

What can we do to turn him into someone who happily follows direction as part of the larger team and is willing to improve and adapt?

Answer: This is quite a conundrum, to be sure. You have a toxic individual in the workplace who has learned that his behaviour works to get what he wants. He occupies space and gets to believe he’s superior, which offers him a sense of significance that he may not have in his personal life. When it comes to big drivers of behaviour, the need to belong and a desire for significance secure two of the top positions.

The behaviour pattern you describe is indicative of someone who tends to ‘peacock.’ They want others to view them as bigger and smarter than the average colleague. This personality craves admiration at an exaggerated level and lashes out quickly if they feel they’re not receiving the special attention they so richly deserve.

Their low emotional intelligence prevents them from recognizing how off-putting and disruptive their behaviours are to others. Colleagues avoid them, which causes them to scramble for admiration at even higher levels. It’s a vicious cycle.

You indicate that his former employer essentially let his toxic behaviour ride – for decades. Sadly, we often teach people how to behave due to our interventions or lack of interventions. In this case, he has a long history of believing his current mindset is appropriate. It’s an entrenched thought pattern that has been rewarded by poor leadership.

If you can’t fire him, how do you inspire him?

Engaging with toxic people is often a waste of time. It drains your energy, puts you in a negative mood, distracts from your work, occupies space in your already busy brain, and can ruin your mood and the mood (or culture) of your startup organization. This toxicity can fracture your high-performing team culture and send your quality staff packing their bags for other opportunities.

You can always unload someone who isn’t a fit – it’s often just a matter of how much it will cost you to do it.

If that’s not the road you wish to travel, ask yourself if you’re the right person in the right role to tackle this drama head-on. Does it keep you up at night? Are the behaviours occupying most of your thoughts?

If you answer “Yes” to these questions, then this is worth tackling. But don’t go into this fray half-hearted. Be agile and prepared for battle. You’re going up against a worthy opponent with lots of experience in getting his needs met.

I’m not confident that you’ll be able to inspire new behaviours, but if you wish to make the attempt, here are a few steps to keep in mind:

  • Avoid being rattled by this one. He will beat you with experience in obstinance and drama. Stay focused on your objectives and deploy plenty of stress-reducing activities.
  • Make a list of where there’s agreement and keep it top of mind.
  • We teach people how to treat us by what we’re willing to tolerate and overlook. If it’s big, interrupt quickly. If it’s a small nuisance, use your body language and turn away when he engages in his disruptive patterns of communication. Turn in when his communication style is appropriate.
  • His former leaders found he could do less emotional harm if he was isolated from others. This has left the individual with the lack of recognition he so craves. Reward the behaviours you want to see more of and give that recognition swiftly and specifically. Avoid the tendency to be vague. This person wants to know how they specifically contributed value.
  • Set strong expectations and communicate them clearly and consistently. Put them in writing so you can refer to them without delay should correction be required.
  • Investigate what compelled this individual to jump on board in the first place. What’s he passionate about? Does that passion still exist? Leverage what you can in this regard.
  • Correct in private. Praise in public.

Communication is an art, not a science, so be prepared to test and tweak your techniques and look for those small wins. Be firm on boundaries. Be respectful always. And be agile in your approaches.

Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.  For interview requests, click here.


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