How to work with dysfunctional behaviour

New Thinking 28 October 2019 Marcella Koopman

Have you ever worked with an annoying, pain-in-the-ass co-worker? Most of us have, right? Did you ever acknowledge their strengths? Probably not, but you’ve justified that as ‘they don’t have any’. Which I totally understand as well.

The pain-in-the-ass co-worker is seen in every office, sadly in most meetings as well. Do you want to slap them in the face? Give them bitchy attitude back? You’re not alone in this. But guess what: that pain in the ass probably thinks the same about you…

What is dysfunctional behaviour?

If you look up ‘dysfunctional’ in a dictionary, you’ll get the following definition: “behaving or acting outside social norms and not performing normally”1. This raises a lot of questions. What is a social norm? What is normal? Who determines what normal is and what a social norm is? These are all interesting questions, but perhaps for another day. We all recognise dysfunctional behaviour. However, we find it really hard to have a conversation about it when it’s happening.

Why do people choose to be a pain in the ass?

Behaviour is a reaction based on triggers. Everything that we go through – as a child to a grown up – our upbringing, negative experiences, loss etc. – create triggers in our brain. When an event happens, we’re programmed to respond to it. The human brain is designed to protect us from any fear or anxiety. How we react to those feelings is different for every person. If you understand this, you can then consider the reason, rather than the behaviour.

I’m a pain in the ass as well

As a young girl, I was frequently told that I was unintelligent and not destined for greatness – “Just be pretty and smile”. Not the most encouraging words for a young girl. Someone questioning my intelligence (the trigger) created a reaction – the determination to prove them wrong. No matter at what cost, I would prove them wrong and show that I could do it. To refuse to allow people to see that it made me insecure, small and unworthy, I would become loud, extrovert and ‘out there’.

Today, if someone makes me feel like they’re questioning my intelligence, I can come across as quite arrogant and indifferent. I’ll prove them wrong by showing that I can do it. This can make people who work with me uncomfortable and see me as a little bitchy and overly independent. And no matter how much effort, pain, tears or fear it may give me, I’ll make sure it gets done. This is what can make your behaviour dysfunctional – when the source of it is a defence mechanism.

Dysfunctional behaviour in the workplace

Whether dysfunctional behaviour takes place in your personal or work life, it creates tense situations. Dysfunctional behaviour can cause a severe level of tension, anxiety, fatigue and stress. Research done by Van Fleet and Van Fleet shows that dysfunctional behaviour at work can reduce performance as it can prevent employees from working at full capacity. And it has a negative effect on organisational performance as well2.

Other research showed that people, as a reaction to dysfunctional behaviour, intentionally decrease the work effort to meet their own responsibilities – and sometimes even decreases the amount of time spent at work3. So why do we see so much dysfunctional behaviour around us? Pearson’s research mentions that the overwhelming number of workplace relationships and complexity, facilitated by technologies that focus on non-face-to-face communication, is a key element.

What to do about dysfunctional behaviour?

As an organisation, you can do things to prevent dysfunctional behaviour. For example, you can incorporate organisational values – work ethics based on how we all work together. People find it easier to speak up if they experience dysfunctional behaviour in a safe environment.

Even though remembering ‘it’s behaviour, not the person’ is powerful and something I really believe in, I often catch myself referring to the person instead of the behaviour. It isn’t that easy to separate. You see the person and ‘feel’ the trigger of the behaviour. Therefore, it’s easy to project those feelings onto the person creating the trigger.

Personally, it took a trip to the dark side for me to finally understand myself and why I was behaving the way I was in certain situations. When I identified my own behaviour, it made me see other people’s behaviour in a different light.

The point I’m trying to make is this… Before you react to someone’s behaviour, ask yourself why they’re acting that way. Not a lot of people behave dysfunctionally just for fun, although it might seem like that sometimes. Consider what’s behind it. Take a deep breath and try to ask that person why. Maybe you will come to a realisation that will make your (work) relationship even better.

Want to know more about dysfunctional behaviour, what’s behind it and have an easy-to-use tool to understand and work with behaviour? Join our lunchtime Sunlight Session on 1 November at Assurity’s Auckland office. Sign up here.

  2. Van Fleet, D.D., & Van Fleet, E.W. (2012). Towards a Behavioural Description of Managerial Bullying. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal
  3. Pearson, M., Andersson, L.M. &  Porath, C.L. (2000). Assessing and attacking workplace incivility