Dear Crucial Skills,
I have an employee who makes negative comments and tries to undermine leadership. She is a great teacher, but she creates a toxic environment with our staff, and she has a strong influence on them. How can I handle this behavior?
I’m going to outline a few steps you can follow before you speak with your employee, while you speak with her, and after you speak with her.
Before we dive in, though, I’m wondering whether it’s your employee’s position you find negative and undermining, or how she expresses it. I think it’s important you clarify this for yourself before you talk with her. It’s one thing to discourage sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness, for example, and quite another to discourage disagreement with management.
I’m going to assume that the problem is the way she disagrees rather than that she does. If this is true, her behavior may be the result of not feeling safe or not having the skills. The good news is you have an opportunity to make it clear you welcome differing viewpoints and demonstrate how to express them.
Before You Talk
Before you approach your employee, there are two things you can do that will greatly increase the odds of having an effective conversation: (1) master your stories and (2) gather some facts.
To master your stories is to suspend your judgment. For starters, your question reveals a story. You say that your employee makes “negative” comments, tries to “undermine” leadership, and creates a “toxic” environment. These are conclusions. They’re your judgments of her behavior.
If you go into the conversation with these conclusions at the forefront, you’re likely to provoke a defense.
Instead, identify the concrete behaviors you find problematic, and narrow down a few examples or incidents.
For example, did she say something in a meeting that challenged a leader’s decision? What was it? When was that meeting? And what exactly did her peers say or do that led you to believe she influenced them?
Make a list of a few incidents or exchanges and gather as much data about these as you can—what was said or done, tangible outcomes or consequences, and so on. This list will be valuable when you talk.
After you’ve clarified the facts surrounding the behavior, ask yourself this: Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do or say these things? Is there some other possible explanation for her behavior?
The point is not to conjecture what her motives might be, but simply to recognize there are other possible explanations. If you do this sincerely, you should find yourself thinking, “Ok, maybe she has good reasons and I just don’t know what they are.”
That said, just because we draw conclusions doesn’t mean we are always wrong in them. Maybe your employee does want to undermine leadership. All the more reason to have an open conversation.
While You Talk
When you talk, do so one on one at a scheduled time. Don’t corner her at the printer or call her out during a meeting.
In the first few seconds of your conversation, make it safe and state your purpose. For example, “I want you to know that I value your contributions here, and everyone on the team looks up to you. I’ve also noticed some things that concern me, and I want to share my perspective and get your perspective on the matter.”
Don’t try to flatter her here, but find something true and positive to say to convey your respect.
Then share the facts you gathered. “Last week during our team meeting, I shared the quarterly goal that executive leadership has outlined. You then said ________ in what seemed like sarcasm. Then others started complaining and venting, rather than communicating concerns. The meeting never got back on track.”
Try to be specific. As you talk, do so with humility.
After you’ve shared the facts, share your interpretation of them. “I feel like some of your comments are belittling to me and other managers, and I’m starting to wonder if you don’t respect us. Maybe you doubt our competence. And perhaps you don’t intend this, but I feel your actions diminish my credibility with the team.”
Then seek her input. “I’d like to know where you’re coming from. How do you see it?”
Your goal during this conversation should be to gather meaning, to simply get talking. Don’t try to resolve the disagreement just yet.
In fact, you may discover that you don’t have a disagreement, but rather a misunderstanding. A person’s behavior can take on entirely new meaning when we discover their reasons for it. Annoyance, frustration, and fear can quickly turn to tolerance, acceptance, and understanding.
If you do find yourself at odds, however, there are a handful of skills you can employ. To keep this article brief, I’ll link to a few rather than expound on them here. You can describe the gap between your employee’s behavior and your expectations, seek mutual purpose, and highlight natural consequences to her behavior. These skills can help you explore solutions and reach alignment.
After You Talk
Whether you uncover a simple misunderstanding or a difference in viewpoints, make it a point to stay in dialogue and check in regularly. You might conclude your initial conversation, “Well, I can appreciate where you’re coming from. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m not sure yet what to do about our different approaches, but I would like to keep talking about this. Let’s meet again next week. I’ll come prepared with a few ideas we can discuss.”
Or you might clarify a few expectations and ask your employee to work on certain behaviors. Either way, when you check in, check in. Don’t check up. Try to support your employee to adopt or develop expected behaviors. Think about how you can enable rather than persuade her. I know of a couple courses that teach excellent skills.
Best of luck,