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Kate Nowicki: Grasping the nettle - tackling extreme behaviour at work

Thursday 26 May 2016

Kate Nowicki, Acas East Midlands Area Director discuess tackling extreme behaviour at work

Kate Nowicki

Kate Nowicki

Kate Nowicki is an Acas Area Director based in Nottingham.



The other day a colleague asked me why we host training events to help managers deal with 'extreme, persistent and difficult staff behaviour', and how did it all start?

The quick answer is that I have always been interested in the psychology of relationships at work. Why do people do what they do? Why am I the person that I am? Why do you behave the way you behave? And why is it that occasionally we come across someone whose behaviours and personality traits feel impossible to deal with?

When there are people who take up so much time and energy, spoiling the work environment for others, surely Acas, as the experts in employment relations, should have an answer?

Workplaces, it strikes me, are not so different to families. As we all know, not all problems at home can be resolved: there are personality clashes, parents or siblings who don't obey the rules and, as children become adolescents, there is that developmental clock that says "it's time for mayhem". Sometimes it feels as though an adolescent has been let loose in the workplace.

It was a few years ago that psychotherapist Martin Smith got talking to me about this. His specialist knowledge, my personal interest and the Acas perspective on good workplace relations came together, and our training course was born. From the outset it proved popular and has struck a chord.

The managers we meet on the course are often tired and frustrated: on a business level, they can't afford the disruption any longer, and on a personal level, they are emotionally drained and out of options.

This training event is one of our most popular because it faces the reality of some extreme forms of human behaviour head on. You know the scenario. You try to reason but 'X' goes off on a tangent; you remain calm but X becomes aggressive; X claims to be a model of professionalism while you are part of a weak management system; you agree a time and date for a meeting and X keeps changing it.

Some people who demonstrate some of these behaviours may have diagnosable personality disorders and this will help with understanding them. But our focus is very much on dealing with the problem and moving on. We run our course in collaboration with a trained psychotherapist and the first reaction we get from delegates is a deep sense of relief that "it's not just me".

Of course, you have to be careful when talking about people at this deeper level. We are not interested in casting people as the 'rotten apple in the barrel'. It is not about judging them. It is simply about standing back and deciding what you can and can't accommodate at work, and how you deal with that.

Often people behave in a difficult way because they have a genuine grievance and struggle to handle the emotion of that. And it is by no means just staff who cause problems: senior managers can also be the root of the bad behaviour.

I think behavioural issues are something we all need to take a more active interest in.  It's a fascinating area, full of challenge and rich with possibility. If you are interested in attending one of our courses, the full list of what is available in your area is available and if you want to talk about behaviours in your workplace, get in touch and we'll see if we can help.

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