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Managing challenging conduct? Start here.

Let's get straight to the point - the topic I am most frequently asked about is dealing with challenging or unreasonable behaviour. I wish I had simple, instantly effective answers to this question, but I don't, because they don't exist. Trying to approach 'challenging and unreasonable' conduct with simplified frameworks and catch phrases can often exacerbate or prolong conflict.

I intend to write a lot more about my learnings on this topic in future newsletters, but today I will share my foundational approach that emphasises self-awareness and separating the conduct from the person.

1) Start by identifying why the conduct is challenging by using an “I” statement to describe the challenging behaviour and its impact is on you. This allows you to separate the conduct and its impact from the person that it is coming from. It also encourages self-awareness and a moment of reflection - do you feel safe, and is it the best thing for you to continue this conversation?

2) Once you have identified the impact of the behaviour, then you can identify the right strategy to manage the impact. In considering strategies to respond to challenging or unreasonable conduct my qualifying questions are:


  • Is it safe? (physically and psychologically)

  • Is it inclusive? (i.e. can reasonable adjustments be made)

  • Is it fair? (ensure natural justice, and a proportionate use of resources)


3) We cannot control the behaviour of others. For this reason, our focus must simply be on identifying and minimising the negative impacts of the conduct on ourselves and our work. Plan out a strategy to minimise the negative impacts of the challenging conduct, communicate the approach to those impacted, and consistently follow the approach while maintaining meticulous records. It's as simple, and as hard, as that!

Here is how my road map for this approach:

Here is an example of how this approach would work in practice:

I find phone calls from Mr A challenging because he constantly makes accusations that he has no evidence for, he speaks about many topics that I cannot comment on, and he does not give me an opportunity to speak. The phone calls do not achieve anything except to give Mr A a chance to vent his frustrations and it makes me feel like a punching bag. I find this difficult as I have many other tasks to attend to and do not have time for these phone calls. I also find that taking these phone calls has an impact on my wellbeing at work.

To limit the impact of this conduct on me, I will talk to my colleague or manager about how I am feeling. I will propose the plan that we will first ask Mr A if we can communicate by email moving forward. If Mr A insists on phone calls, I will let Mr A know that I can only speak with him once a fortnight for half an hour. During that time, we will need to discuss the topic (insert topic of discussion). If Mr A does not stay on topic during that time, after the half an hour conversation, I will send him a short email outlining the progress of my work on his file and I will let him know the time of our next phone call.

In the above approach, we have not labelled or diagnosed Mr A, we have identified what conduct is of concern to us, and how it is impacting us. We have put in place an opportunity to debrief and consult with others. We have also then put in place a plan to manage the impact on us.

At the end of the day, the only thing that is within our control is the actions we take to limit the impact of this conduct on our work, and on ourselves. In this scenario, it is likely Mr A will continue to speak off topic and in accusatory manner, however, we have taken the steps necessary to limit the impact of this behaviour on ourselves and our work.

The most important part about this approach is that we create role clarity for ourselves in the face of challenging conduct. This is an essential part of ensuring our resilience as conflict managers. It's also about keeping our role in the conflict within perspective. To read more on this I recommend this short article by Tony Schwartz The Secret to Dealing With Difficult People: It’s About You (hbr.org).

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on this topic, please visit my extended blog here: Understanding and Managing Unreasonable Conduct in the Workplace: Strategies for Effective Conflict Resolution

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