Manage Your Destructive Employees

Have you ever felt that you just could not get a handle on why an employee seems to frequently be undermining your authority or sabotages your projects?  They just seem to always be “stirring the pot”.  Other employees are manipulated to carry out their agendas, and they protest innocence in all destructive behaviors.  In fact they will turn on the very individuals that they stir up emotionally.  Oh, also, they will say “yes” to your face, and encourage you to share confidential information, then, use it against you. Of course this will all be done very carefully, watching everyone’s reactions and calculating their next move. 

This sounds pretty destructive doesn’t it?  Well, very few organizations escape the plight of having at least one of these persons in their company.  Frequently they manipulate their way to the top of the management structure with almost no one noticing their ascension. 

Let me provide an example of how the “pot stirrer” does their destruction, going unnoticed, until they have enough power or authority to get rid of (or create problems for) employees that create a threat to them.  (Threats may be based on either emotional reactions or real challenges to them)

A young lady entered an organization as a secretary.  Over a couple of years she boosted the ego of her manager telling him how great he was and how several other staff were not loyal (like she was) to him.  She would tell another employee she would help them with their “unfair” overload of work (given to them by this manager).  This initially is very much appreciated.  Then the first signs of destruction come without warning.  “Oh, I just didn’t have time to get that done for you, putting the employee in an awkward position of now being late with their project. 

The stage is now set for the “back stab”.  She approaches the manager (who she has created a trusting relationship with), and subtly implies that this worker doesn’t seem to be able to handle her job, “even though I really like her”.  This plants the seed for the manager to watch for any signs of incompetence in this person. 

It is important to remember that the person may not have really done anything harmful to the “pot stirrer”, yet somehow the individual may have been winning extra attention or favor from the manager, or even demonstrating too much competence.  That would be the kiss of death.  Now the enemy is identified and will have to be destroyed. 

The subtle setups for failure (or at least perceived failure) of the targeted person have begun.  The occasional comments to the manger (e.g. “she is such a nice person, it is a shame that she has so much trouble with the others workers in the office), build until the manager starts to see the person with a significantly skewed perception.

At the same time that the manager is gaining confidence in the “pot stirrer”, because she seems so nice and genuinely concerned about her “struggling” co-worker.  She also seems, to the manager, to be interested and supportive of all his ideas and projects. She introduces the idea of letting her help him by taking the supervision of the other workers off his hands (“you have far too many other important things to do”).  The manager buys the idea and she is now promoted. 

In this kind of scenario, a difficult personality like this could continue the climb to power and control and eventually the wonderful manager, who helped her, may become the next target for her destruction in the organization.  Actually, you are only safe when you do everything her way.  Yet if you do, you and the company will lose.  In addition, whatever you do to try to help this person, it will never be enough, nor will it protect you from her for very long.  (Usually the personality characteristics of the “pot stirrer” only show up over many months or years) .

The above example illustrates the cleaver, but destructive manipulation of people (or projects), to meet an emotional need that most people will never know.  The constant need to stir up others is a never ending characteristic of these individuals.  They are seldom comfortable unless there is some form of chaos to capitalize on, if only to make someone else look bad.  They will be your best friend one day and then treat you like the devil the next day.  What ever they do, or say, will be exaggerated.  Any suggestion of not liking them or them perceiving you to have slighted them, even in a small innocent way, will constitute a reason to get back at you. 

The ability to tolerate any form of rejection or abandonment is impossible (except in a substantially superficial manner for a very short period of time).They may actually make false accusations, threats, or attempt to make others feel guilty.  You might even begin to fear them.  They are very impulsive and frequently their anger toward anyone will be played out through stirring up the more emotional employees to carry out their agenda of destruction.  Remember, they most often give an excellent presentation of surprise and innocence when the destruction actually happens.

The behaviors they exhibit are not based on rationality, but rather emotionality.  Most often their lives both at work and outside of work (despite sometimes being covered well) are turbulent, inconsistent, and unstable (though often covered extremely well).  Their self-image is fragile and frequently they have difficulty maintaining boundaries of identity.  Your achievement is their achievement.  Your idea is their idea.

Remember you may be praised as the saint one day and blamed for everyone’s problems the next day.  Most often you are perceived of as being with them or against them.  There is no middle ground. Be careful with these individuals, even if they put themselves down or seem to accept responsibility for a problem (this would be only to manipulate sympathy and distract the attention from the real problem).

Losing control over angry feelings is not unlikely for this difficult employee, however, how you see it, (or the repercussions of it), will be determined by their perception of you as the great saint or the devil.  

BEWARE!  It is very difficult to tell where you stand, and when they will stir your pot. 
What do we do with these employees?

  1. Stay away from them!  Of course this is usually impossible. 
  2. Get feedback from others to determine if your perceptions are correct.  Only choose the most trusted colleagues that they have not already lured into their web.
  3. When dealing with them focus on facts and issues, not them.  Managing them can only be done by limiting their destructive behaviors.  (Again, attention must be given to what they “do” not what they “say”)  
  4. Never take them into confidence, especially regarding your own personal or private concerns (work related or not).  It will eventually be used against you.
  5. If possible, restrict their access to other managers (or higher level personnel).  They will turn others on you without you even knowing, initially.
  6. Do not promote anyone suspected of being this type of difficult personality.
  7. If you are forced to work with them in a management position, solicit the support for your ideas or plans prior to incorporating them in the decision process.
  8. If they attack you (often subtly and in front of others) don’t overreact.  Stick to facts and get the attention back on your agenda vs. reacting to their “stirring of your pot”.
  9. Never show anger toward them.  Compliment them for offering their ideas and show empathy for their feelings, and thenset the limits on what they will have to do, even if they disagree.  Don’t give in to them.  Trying to be nice will not work.  Nothing will be good enough
  10. Be clear and consistent.  Don’t waver on issues that are important to you, they will use it against you and continue to demand more. 
  11. Make sure they are managed carefully.  Don’t fear documenting their behaviors and placing warnings in their files.  This problematic personality will fight back viciously.  They are the most difficult to terminate and most likely to sue. 
  12. Use professionals to help evaluate, coach, develop, or manage these “pot stirrers”.  At least the blame and attacks will be directed toward the consultant, not you.  Sometimes this is the only way to have any semblance of control over their destructive behaviors.
  13. When they are managing side-by-side with you make sure you communicate frequently with other managers and executives.  Make decisions in teams where you can keep the focus on rational decisions and specific task responsibilities (measurable outcomes on clear timelines).
  14. Finally, when hiring (or promoting), use professional consultants.  They can help increase the probability of preventing the “pot stirrer” from getting into your organization (or at least from getting into a position of influence)

Don’t Miss This Important Point!

 The importance of understanding the personality characteristics of the people you work with, will only increase your effectiveness in managing the difficult employees in a way that will reduce (not get rid of) their destructiveness to the organization or YOU.


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