A Tiger in the Forest – Taming Your Team-Busting Employee

Thomas Friedman in  Friedman’s Fables tells the tale of “The Friendly Forest” , a place where all of the animals live happily together until a new neighbor, a ferocious tiger, moves in. The very presence of the tiger disrupts the calm, peaceful atmosphere, especially for the lamb that seems to be the object of the Tiger’s growling obsession. The frightened lamb is advised by his friends not to leave the forest just because of one new inhabitant; he’s counseled that ‘the tiger is just being a tiger – that’s just how they behave’. Perhaps the lamb is being too sensitive. In fact, perhaps the lamb, itself, is contributing tho the aggressiveness of the tiger!tiger-emerald-forest-koyeq_085123 Perhaps the Lamb needs to give concessions to the tiger and accept his behaviors. Meanwhile the stalking continues until finally someone had the wisdom to say, “This is ridiculous. You don’t try to make the lamb and tiger communicate better. If you want them to coexist in the same forest you have to cage the bloody tiger!”.

And so it is in business when one or more employees, by their attitudes or behaviors, poison the work environment, demotivating the whole department. And haven’t we all been like the other animals in the forest at one time or another, wishing someone would just cage (or shoot) that tiger?

What are some of the reasons we allow such behavior to continue?

  • We think (in a union shop, for instance) that we can’t get rid of them

I agree that there are exceptional situations and jobs (family businesses, shops that run by racial or gender preferences, insider shops, nepotism, tenured teaching positions) where people are sent to innocuous job transfers rather than being let go altogether. In the New York City municipalities these innocuous do-nothing jobs are referred to by many as “rubber rooms”. But first find out what the HR policies actually are rather than believe the urban legends that suggests non-functional employees cannot be touched. We often have more power than we believe.

  • We underestimate the impact it has on the other employees. 

Having a team member who is always late, shirks her duties as part of the team so others have to carry her load, has continual conflicts going with other customers, clients and colleagues, or is simply disagreeable most of the time is akin to having asbestos in the walls. It may not kill you immediately but one by one your team will be dropping like flies. It angers people to see a colleague doing half the work for the same (or even higher) pay. You will notice staff attrition, passive aggressive behaviors, a major drop in productivity and morale …just because one person’s disruptive dysfunctions remain unaddressed.

  • We don’t want to be the bad guy, especially when such behavior has been tolerated by previous managers

If you’re the new leader of the pack you  have a small window in which to make a significant move on such an employee. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you fire him, but the whole team will be watching to see if you are any more effective than the last person in charge. Based on what they see you do the team will decide whether or not you are worth following. It might seem like the best tactic is to wait a long time and see if things resolve themselves, but that’s actually the worst thing you can do. Whether you decide to remediate, retrain or remove them, you should begin a process as soon as you notice a problem. That will create a positive momentum for the staff as a whole.

And if you were the one who hired Mr. or Ms. Horror Show, admit you were wrong, but don’t stay in the mess you’ve created.

  • We’re more afraid of the negative reaction of the “tiger” employee than the negative reaction of the team if we do nothing

The “tiger” can only do what you allow it to do. Yes, there will  likely be resistance to change, probationary or remedial measures, but if you have no heart for that kind of blow-back then perhaps you don’t deserve the honor of leading! Leaders will take hits from 50-something two year-olds who pitch fits when they don’t get their way. This is what “big  girl panties” are all about. Pull them (or your boxers) up! “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” – I think Mr. Spock coined that.

  • We are unclear about what dysfunctional behavior really is

Aside from obvious breaches of codes of conduct as defined in employee manuals there is such as thing as “unsportsmanlike” behavior that creates an emotionally unsafe environment. Sulking and staring down people at staff meetings: unacceptable! Unbridled sarcasm towards colleagues, towards their supervisor or towards consumers: unacceptable! Undermining the organization by talking negatively about it on the premises to whoever will listen: unacceptable!. “Triangulating” – managing conflicts by bringing in a third party to air your grievances: unacceptable! These behaviors are widely accepted as things we have to grin and bear – but we shouldn’t.

  • We think that “Everyone deserves a second chance”.

I don’t know who coined that expression but here’s the deal: GOD gives people multiple chances to get their lives right  because He can. By all means, our default position should always be to help people reach their greatest potential, and to hang in there with them as they grow.

However, you cannot always afford to give second chances to people to stay in their position, wreaking havoc when they are a) not motivated to change, no matter what the incentives are b) unable and unwilling to receive and act on constructive feedback or c) unable or unwilling to put the needs of the team, the customers or the company ahead of their own. If the person fits into one or more of these categories they have sealed their own fate.

Part of the leadership role is, as a shepherd, to protect the sheep. The sheep are hard at work, churning out milk and wool, counting on us not to let them get eaten in the process. As team leaders and role models we are showing our staff how to care for one another, valuing each member by putting boundaries around unacceptable behavior. It’s a pain in the drain, it takes time, and makes us unpopular. But each time you step up to fight – not against anyone – but for the good of the business and its consumers, the pricelessness of the reward will spur you on.

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