2020-01-17 HR Examiner article Jason Lauritsen confront bad workplace behavior to protect employee engagement photo img cc0 by bethany legg zX9KPt1Hl c unsplash 544x363px.jpg

“Before long, you feel like you are trapped in a hostile work environment where no one is in control and you aren’t even sure why you are there anymore.” - Jason Lauritsen

Bad behavior at work is contagious

I was reminded of this recently at my nine-year-old son’s soccer game. It was the second game of the tournament and our boys weren’t playing very well.

The team we played against was coached by five adults who were all simultaneously yelling directions to their players on the field. It felt noisy and chaotic compared to the average soccer game we attend.

Our referee that day was a girl who looked to be about 16 years old. Having a young and relatively inexperienced ref is not uncommon at this level of soccer.

photo of Jason Lauritsen on HRExaminer.com 2015

Jason Lauritsen, HRExaminer.com Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

I share all of this context to set up how the game took an ugly turn early in the second half.

It started with a collision between one of our players and one of theirs, not an uncommon occurrence in any game. Their player went down and indicated that he was hurt.

The opposing coach comes walking off his sideline onto the field yelling at the ref about not making calls. A grown man was berating this teenage girl in front of the entire crowd.

As the coach is walking across the field yelling at the ref, one of our parents yells at him to “check himself.” He responds by yelling back and the avalanche of bad behavior began.

Over the course of the next 15 minutes, our normally well-behaved parents started yelling at a clearly overwhelmed ref about missed calls, which resulted in her actually changing a call at one point. As our parents became more riled up, the opposing parents and coaches became louder.

At one point, our coach yelled across the field at our parents to “shut up.”

It was awful. And it felt like it escalated so quickly. It left us feeling gross and embarrassed. Granted, it was primarily a few parents doing most of the yelling, but we were all complicit.

As a youth coach myself, I was left contemplating how I would have handled that situation (or perhaps how I want to be prepared to handle a situation like that in the future).

As I reflected on the experience, here is what stands out to me:

  • One act of bad behavior, left unchecked, triggered another and another and another.
  • As the situation escalated, no one stepped up to try to de-escalate it. In the moment, I remember thinking I should say something or do something but I felt a little too amped and wasn’t sure that anything I would say to our parents wouldn’t make it worse. (It sounds like a cop-out in hindsight.)
  • The outburst in the second half didn’t come out of nowhere. The same parent who yelled at the coach had yelled at opposing coaches in the past, but with less of a reaction.
  • It seems that everyone forgot why we were there in the first place–for our kids to learn soccer and sportsmanship. #Fail

I share all of this because it reminds me of something that I think is widely misunderstood and overlooked about creating an engaging work experience. We talk a lot about appreciation and belonging and happiness as it relates to employee engagement. This is the fun (albeit not easy) part of engagement–the “kumbaya” stuff.

Confronting Bad Behavior

What gets overlooked or missed about engagement is the immense importance of confronting bad behavior.

We’ve all experienced it. One employee feels wronged in some way, so he starts airing his grievances to peers. This escalates over time to being more openly resistant to change and dismissive of management directives. The manager doesn’t address the behavior as it escalates, so others start to follow suit.

Before long, you feel like you are trapped in a hostile work environment where no one is in control and you aren’t even sure why you are there anymore. And this slide from good to bad work experience seems to have happened overnight.

Create and Sustain an Engaging Work Experience

To effectively create and sustain an engaging work experience requires that we are hyper-vigilant about expected behavior at work. To accomplish this requires a few things:

  1. Clearly define what behavior is expected. Everyone from the executives to the front line should have clarity about what is expected at work, from how we treat each other to how we deal with failure. This isn’t an easy task, but it’s worth the time and effort to create clarity. For example, if you value respect at your organization, what does that look like in terms of behavior? It could be as simple as incorporating the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would prefer to be treated.” In the soccer example, it could be more explicit, such as, “We don’t yell at or criticize referees during games. If you have concerns, raise them with your coach after the game.”
  2. Confront violations of behavior immediately. Managers are the front line of defense when it comes to behavior. If bad behaviors aren’t addressed immediately, then you’ve passively given them approval. And, as we’ve seen, bad behavior can be a wicked contagion that can quickly become an epidemic.
  3. Equip people to hold each other accountable. As I was sitting on the sideline during that soccer game, I wish we’d had some kind of agreements in place for our soccer club which would have given us a playbook for how to de-escalate this situation. It could be as simple as saying, “Remember, we’re here for our kids,” that could serve as a trigger to step back and take a breath. At work, it could be “remember the values” or something similar meant to serve as a sort of circuit breaker for bad behavior. It can also be helpful to teach employees how to use feedforward to coach their peers.

Engagement doesn’t come easy. It requires hard work and diligent effort. As you approach the work, don’t forget to mind the behavioral side of the equation.

Remember, all the appreciation in the world can be quickly undone by just one employee behaving badly and going unchecked.

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