Should you consider these micro-behaviours as personal foibles or ticking time bombs?
Workplaces are awash in interpersonal micro-behaviours occurring between employees. Many of them can be positive, but there are also plenty of negative examples that can slowly erode your workplace culture.
A portion of these negative interpersonal behaviours are the product of employees’ personalities. For example, an overly social employee may have a tendency to engage in too much small talk during work hours, distracting their colleagues.
While these micro-behaviours are different to the impacts of overt harassment and bullying, a when left unchecked, they can still have far-reaching consequences.
Avoiding the snowball effect
I’ve previously conducted a review of interpersonal behaviours that managers and HR professionals should seek to understand, identify and be willing to address.
The review involved a post hoc analysis of 250+ organisational consulting matters (workplace mediations, team and individual assessments and wellness reviews), that were conducted over more than twenty years, in organisations with employees from entry level to senior management.
I repeatedly encountered eight negative interpersonal micro-behaviours that were contributing to adverse impacts on the workplace.
Here’s a summary of what I found:
1. Interrupting others.
A habit of interrupting others in the workplace, whether in meetings or in small discussions, has the potential to impact communications and workplace relationships more broadly. Other than cutting colleagues off, this behaviour can also take the form of an employee asking questions of their co-workers but not allowing sufficient time for them to respond before speaking again.
2. Negative body language.
As social beings, we can be very sensitive to the non-verbal cues that we receive from others and often that leads us to jump to conclusions about their intentions or perceptions of us. Negative body language, such as rolling of eyes when a coworker is speaking or looking disinterested, can lead the recipient to feel disrespected.
Another example could be failing to turn towards someone while communicating with them. When someone is speaking with or listening to a coworker with their back turned towards them, without clear eye contact, this sends a clear non-verbal message that they’re simply not interested, don’t like them or don’t deem them important enough to give their full attention to. Repetition of these negative body languages has the potential to impact work relationships and communication.
3. Irritable or arrogant demeanour.
An employee perceived to have a habitually arrogant or irritable demeanour will impact others around them. Such a negative demeanour may be experienced by others as salient, or it may manifest incongruently beneath a friendly façade.
Regardless of how it appears, coworkers can be affronted by someone with demeanour of irritability or arrogance, and will often respond with avoidance or negativity. This behaviour could signal that an employee is dealing with ongoing difficulties in their life. Regardless, such negative interpersonal micro-behaviours will likely have an impact on communication and teamwork.
4. Complaining or gossiping about others.
A pattern of complaining about another employee without speaking to them directly is a type of gossip that can be particularly corrosive in the workplace. This behaviour can impact workplace relationships and create conflict situations.
5. Inappropriate humour or offensive comments.
An employee may periodically make inappropriate comments or jokes that others find offensive. These can be sexual in nature, racist or otherwise insensitive. In some cases, the employee may not even be aware that they have been offending their co-workers because they have not been informed or have failed to pick up on others’ non-verbal cues.
6. Lack of greetings.
When someone walks into a room and doesn’t acknowledge others, or leaves the room without saying goodbye, you get the sense that they A) Haven’t noticed you, or B) Don’t deem you important enough to acknowledge. The matter is compounded when some co-workers are routinely greeted by the employee while others receive no response. If the individual who greets others unequally is a supervisor or manager, their behaviour can breed a culture of favouritism.
7. Offering unsolicited advice.
When an employee is repeatedly giving unsolicited advice to others, the recipient may see the advice-giving employee as being officious and ignore the advice. Frequently, the advice giver is not aware of this impact on others and can even believe they’re being helpful. Unfortunately, this is often experienced as negative and, when recurring, can harm communications and teamwork.
8. Not completing required work in a timely manner.
When employees continuously fail to meet deadlines, it can be of significant concern. Although, this may not be an interpersonal behaviour per se – it’s more of a performance issue – it nevertheless becomes an interpersonal behaviour since it occurs between employees and can lead directly to tensions and conflict in the workplace.
Where can you identify these micro-behaviours?
In many cases, these micro-behaviours may be long-term patterns of behaviour.
They’re also often an early warning sign that tensions are developing between specific employees. In either case, they can be ‘ticking time bombs’ that the organisation needs to identify and address before something blows up.
Many of these behaviours can be observed in meetings or collaborative work projects – situations where power and group dynamics are at play. So HR and managers should keep their eyes peeled in those environments.
In some instances, the behaviours may be reported to the manager by others. In this case, it’s best if the behaviours can also be observed directly by the manager to obviate any issues of hearsay.
While most managers are trained and equipped to manage bigger workplace complaints – such as claims of bullying or sexual harassment – ironically, the smaller, seemingly less significant, issues can be harder to respond to.
Tackling the issue head on
What inhibits a manager from addressing the matter before it escalates? In my review, I came across two main reasons.
The first is that not all managers are fully cognisant of the potential for these types of behavioural patterns to lead to longer term negative impacts.
Secondly, managers may be reluctant to raise such issues out of concern that it will offend employees or cause tension. If we can find a way to avoid unnecessary pain or discomfort, many of us will opt for the avoidance route, but that doesn’t help anyone.
It’s often only when a situation has escalated and is affecting others that managers feel they have the remit to address the behaviour with the employee.
While these aren’t always comfortable conversations, they can be made a little easier if you follow these steps.
Next, organise a meeting with the employee and provide feedback regarding the observed behaviours. Here are some things to keep in mind when relaying this feedback:
- The session should be conducted in a private setting, not in a team meeting.
- As the manager, it’s best if the feedback comes from your own observations rather than what you’re heard from another employee.
- It is important to approach the meeting in an objective manner and ask the employee about the behaviour and obtain their understanding of it. The next step will depend on what they say in response.
In some cases, there may be reasons for its occurrence that can be worked through with the manager. For example, perhaps someone who has a tendency to offer unsolicited advice is doing so because they’re dealing with their own self-confidence issues or they may have a reasonable concern that their co-worker is not performing and it is impacting the team.
- If they genuinely weren’t aware of their behaviour and want to do something about it, that’s great. The manager can then offer support to the employee and support them with a plan to work on the behaviour.
For example, if someone admits to being a micromanager, you could help them to set goals around how they can be more hands off, even if just in certain situations.If they deny it and/or take offense, then depending on the situation, there will need to be follow up conversations to address the matter to attain a suitable outcome. In this instance, you might involve the employee’s manager/team members.
If you’re looking for more tips for making this meeting a success, HRM has previously written a step-by-step article on having difficult conversations at work.
It’s also important that feedback is incorporated into your culture, so employees are more amenable to it in one-on-one settings. To do this, you could make it part of your onboarding processes to mention that feedback and consistent check-in meetings occur periodically and are intended to support all employees.
What are some of the common micro-behaviours in your workplace and how do you deal with it? Let us know in the comment section.
David Hall, PhD is a consulting psychologist and director of DRDH Pty Ltd.
Want to have difficult conversations at work with ease? Sign up to AHRI’s short course for helpful tips. The next course will run on 19 November.