Dealing with challenging behaviour in IT groups

I recently saw a few tweets pushing a piece entitled : When Smart People are Bad Employees.

Luckily the sense of many comments shone though, and the author was eviscerated for what appeared to be short sightedness, poor understanding of behaviour and basically poor posting.

Though it did get me thinking about the amount of confusion and reactionary behaviour there is out there by this kind of management, which that author appears to be representative off (thankfully small and diminishing in my experience, though still present).

Another case of trying to enforce "us and them" I'm right your wrong, opposed to "we".

We're all human, and we're all fallible at times.

I found the majority of this kind of behaviour and approach comes from a lack of trust, of oneself mostly, and then the team. A fear response to attempt to control, opposed to having the will power and self control to resist such behaviour.

(There was another piece I saw on : Managing Nerds, while better and nearly saving itself with some tongue in cheek humour, it was ultimately "us and them" tactics as well as being simplistic and condescending)

Hence why I'm going to review some of the points  give my take on what is going on. Then actual options for how to deal with it, opposed to the original advice of :

"Put up with it, blame them, then fire them" .......


Though firstly, I think it is valuable to separate behaviour and the person.

One of the over whelming messages is the original post, is that you judge people and describe them from their behaviours. I suggest that you don't and you define and isolate the behaviour that you find challenging, and see it as your experience of that behaviour instead.

Keep the faith that most people are positive and want the same things, just some have trouble expressing it or communicating frustration.

Once you have identified the behaviour and stopped trying to judge and  blame the person, you can do the first best thing, and that is asses yourself.

There are volumes written yearly akin to : "What pisses us off, tells us about ourselves" etc. I could quote all kinds of philosophy, but you get the idea.

Is the behaviour you are experiencing out of place or inappropriate, or is it your reaction and perception that is magnifying it ?

As with just about anything in life, self awareness is key and also as elusive as it is time consuming to develop, though obviously well worth it.

If possible, consult with someone who's there that you trust. Possibly a colleague or team member. Remember it's by way of understanding are things how you see them, opposed to an opportunity to complain or try and build sides.


Just about all issues (of this kind) I've come across come from poor communication (and expectation), be it typical or deliberate.

Project groups are collections of people attempting to get a common goal achieved. Though within that you have collections of individuals who all see the challenges at hand in a different manner (which is a real strength by the way).

As well as being people, and all that goes with that themselves.

The usual kind of approach for management that reports all these difficulties is mandating and dictating to a group, how to solve the issue as they see it.

There are two fundamental issues here. First, the team will solves the challenges, that's what project teams do, when allowed, and support by facilitation. So focus on the issue, not trying to tell people who likely know better than you how to do it.

This is where trust and respect come in, not the iron first of weak managements "I'm in a suit and have a big title, I have to tell you what to do, what else am I hear for" (that topic I'll leave to Dr Paul Thomas).

One of the most important things to do is communicate, and the most important part of communicating is listening, not talking.

If you are experiencing what you perceive to be negative behaviour by people who are "negative" or "questioning you all the time" .......... find out why!

Resistance is typically a good thing when it's about a project, as someone who can see something you can't is likely trying to tell you something.


If you are from the Dickensian school of management (lets call it "the 80's" and you have a huge Motorola mobile phone you like to shout into in the middle of the office), then control is going to be second nature. Anything Zen is going to involve "Asian people in silk pyjamas waving their hands about".

(As it is I rather like Tai-Chi, it's taught me lots about  dealing with energy, negative or positive, and how to go with the flow and re-direct a lot of the time. Also the costs of going head to head, Yang vs Yang, feeding anger etc.)

There are times when legitimate control and power make sense, for instance a parent physically stopping a child walking into a busy road. Another typical one is the military, because of chain of command (though even there there are caveats for disobeying certain orders).

Now unfortunately I've seen groups that are run at one extreme or the other, a crèche or a military dictatorship.

I'd suggest will intelligent professionals, both are pointless and counter productive.

Though what is apparent to me, is when you have a clash of expectations, within the team. A lot of managers attempt to actually run and direct individuals within a team, i.e. that age old term : micro-managing. The vast majority of IT/software people are going to be resistant to this as they know how to do the job and need support and facilitation, not a condescending head master.

So from the managers point of view, they are resisting and being difficult.

A common and unfortunate mistake, also when done in the context of "I'm more senior, I must be right" there can only be one assumption.

The key here, once again, is the self awareness of what is going on, and what is more important :

Being "right" and in control .... or helping the team to get the job done.

I do make distinction from control and direction, though well functioning teams given a challenge when allowed to will typically self organise and become directive.


Given I'm talking about work, it is a professional environment, there is money changing hands for effort & time, it's not social or family, or personal relationship.

Therefore there is a defined environment, be that an expectation of work or hours spent in a location. Now all good management (or rather team facilitation) is flexible, but to a point.

Allowing someone to be absent for weeks (or even days) and not taking action but to wait and stew until their return and explode is about as far from a constructive or well functioning choice as you can get.

The key here is professional environment. I am not condoning Prima donna behaviour or "the end justifies the means" excuses, though I am advocating that there is mutual respect and acceptance of responsibility, on both sides.

If some one doesn't turn up for work for days in a row, sure you check in on them find out what is going on (it could be an emergency). But you don't simmer in the office "tolerating" their behaviour because they are a technical genius and then explode when they return, you deal with it. It's contractual if nothing else.


There are two sides to the personal aspect that strike me.

First, is that most of these issues come from ego, of any team member. It  could be "da management" or members of the project team. Personally I don't differentiate or accept that any team issues, are only "the workers fault", there is a shocking amount of managers with challenging behaviours, just as there are workers.

So there can be ego on both sides. Management by responsibility of position are there to be aware of, and mediate this, opposed to taking it personally and attempting to "control" the staff.

Specific behaviours of anger, passive aggressive, negative etc, don't particularly bother me as they are just the symptoms of something else. It's just that individuals behaviour to a given situation. There are whole sites about how to deal with individual behaviours, google will help with that.

Find out what is behind the behaviour, and if it is relevant to the project, or if it's personal to them ........... which brings me on to....

Point two: being that we all have our own personal issues, and the vast majority of the time, for the vast majority of people (in my experience) separate that from work. And to a degree that's good, it's professional.

By way of example, the original poster advocates blaming an employee for experiencing an addiction and firing them. Luckily as someone pointed out, in many places that is illegal. Let alone immoral to me.

Some times we are overwhelmed by the situations in our lives, be that burnout a personal crisis, life in general, etc.

How a company supports it's people is very telling of how it's people are going to support the company I've found. My experiences are more of Europe than North America, though I've seen provisions for HR and employee support on both sides of the water.

I don't personally want to run a company and turn it into a counselling help session all day long, though I do accept there are responsibilities and healthy ways of supporting people. Respect at work is a two way street.

Shouting at people or threatening them for not working weekends consistently, and then firing them the first day of holiday they take is no way to do business.

So my advice is to lay off the condescending approaches of :
  • how do we control them
  • how to deal with people who don't do what you say
  • Nerds are X, and this is how you manipulate them
  • etc
And try and look at the bigger picture, and most importantly yourself before trying to blame, control, understand others.



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