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Manage Disruptive Employees Using Brain Science - A Mindfulness Approach

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June 23rd, 2016

- Updated on

March 21, 2018 - 4:32pm
We all know them, those employees who have a knack for disrupting our day, challenging our leadership, or stirring up trouble and resentment on the team. In general, they drive us up a wall. The Loafer, the Victim, the Wishy-Washy, and the Rogue are just a few of the seemingly misfits’ gallery of characters that we wish we could avoid.

Guess what? By applying what we know about brain science and using communication strategies, you can transform your communication and your relationship with these difficult employees. That transformation can turn a misfit into a productive team member.

The result: reduced workplace stress for you and your team, minimized daily disruption, increased productivity, and improved team agility overall. 

In a webinar presented to the New Jersey Business and Industry Association (NJBIA), Leanne Leonard and Linda Hlavac, A.J. O’Connor Associates' (AJO) Executive Coaches, explained the brain science that may trigger employee disruptive behavior, and provided key strategies for turning it around. They addressed common yet distinct types of employee challenges with solutions to resolve each. What they shared made sense. Their tips may help you manage even the most disruptive members of your team, the talented ones you hope to save if they would only just behave.  
You can listen to the entire webinar and review the slides at the end of this post. Here are a few important nuggets from AJO's presentation.

Life Experiences > Brain Hard-Wiring > Emotional Reactions > Innate Behavioral Response

Our brains are hard wired to seek reward and avoid threat by our experience and stored memories. When our brain perceives a situation that is reminiscent of a past experience, this may trigger a positive or negative emotional reaction in present time based on that past experience. In perceived threatening situations, our limbic system hijacks our pre-frontal cortex, or the thinking part of the brain, driving our physiology and our emotions, flooding our body with fight or flight hormones that ready us to defend against the threat. Conversely, when an experience calls up memories of reward, our brain floods the body with hormones that relax us, allow us to think clearly, and give us that warm, positive glow we all crave.

Mindfulness > Mitigated Emotional Reactions > Thoughtful, Managed Behavioral Response

When an employee presents us with a behavioral or attitudinal challenge, are we at the mercy of our brain wiring?  Not necessarily. By becoming mindful of our own triggers or hot buttons that drive our automatic reactions to situations, we can short circuit those reactions, choosing instead a more reasoned response. Likewise, if we are aware of the triggers that a disruptive employee may be experiencing in certain situations, we can manage our communication to elicit a reward response rather than a threat-based response in that employee. In other words, how we communicate and react to others in any situation can alter the response and subsequent behaviors we elicit in them. 

“We "catch" strong emotions much as we do a rhinovirus–and so can come down with the emotional equivalent of a cold.”     

- Daniel Goleman

Mindfulness is a Learned Skill

Mindfulness is a learned skill that enables us to take back control of our automatic reactions from our limbic system, allowing us to more appropriately respond to events in real time. Mindfulness requires time to breathe through the initial innate response. It requires a deliberately thoughtful approach with an awareness of self and of others impacted by the situation. To apply a mindful strategy when faced with a reactive employee or a challenging situation that you have to communicate to your team, first take a step back and assess what is happening for you in the moment, then look at it from the perspective of the other stakeholders involved.  

The SCARF Model              

Coaches in AJO’s Team and Leadership Development practice use the SCARF Model and related assessment developed by Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute to assist leaders in collaborating and influencing behavior in others.  The model is a useful tool for leaders to understand their own triggers and hot buttons and to better assess what may be happening with their difficult employees.  The SCARF Model holds that the very things that impact you, most likely are impacting others.  We all react to differing degrees in situations that challenge Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (SCARF). To reduce disruptive reactions in employees, it is important for leaders to work at crafting their communication to more likely trigger reward buttons and avoid triggering threat responses in their staff members around these issues. Analyzing the situation from several viewpoints can help you craft a reward message, rather than delivering a message perceived as a potential threat.

Brain Wiring is as Unique as a Fingerprint- Tailor Your Approach Accordingly

Armed with this knowledge, how does it apply to the wide variety of disruptive behaviors one may experience in employees? In the webinar, Ms. Leonard and Ms. Hlavick suggest that understanding the “why” behind the behavior of certain types of disruptors on your team can help you select successful strategies for quelling the unwanted behavior. For example:  
How do you best communicate to manage these and other common employee challenges while ensuring that the employee understands the impact their behavior is having on their colleagues, their productivity, and ultimately their career success?
To learn what success strategies work best for these and other hot buttons and behavioral triggers, download the slide presentation and listen to the webinar presentation below.
If you are interested in learning more about your own triggers and hot buttons, you may want to take the complimentary SCARF Assessment from the NeuroLeadership Institute.
What’s the bottom line? Managing disruptive and difficult employee behavior starts and ends with each of us. Change our approach, we change the outcome. It may not be easy, but it truly is as simple as brain science.

Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.