Dealing w Dysfunctional Styles of Behavior

dysfunctional behavior a giftQuick question: Got any really difficult people (perhaps a “brilliant asshole” or someone you think has dysfunctional behavior) that you work with regularly?

Yeah, I thought so.

Next question: Do you ever stop to thank them?

Yeah, I thought so.

Guess what, those Bengali tea boys/girls are a gift.

They are not only helping you and me with our personal growth – they are more than likely bringing an untapped strength to the team.

Yes, behind that hard-to-collaborate with, ill-spirited, ill-tempered, orneriness, there is some hidden value.

People choose dysfunction as a substitute for expressing displeasure Share on X

Definition of Dysfunctional Behavior

“Brilliant Asshole” for example, is a combination of a couple of dysfunctional demeanors.

These behavior patterns show up as actions or feelings that divert resources or team attention away from discussing important things productively. But if you can channel them, you can improve your teams’ performance.

Why do people choose dysfunctional behavior?

People choose maladjusted behavior generally as a substitute for expressing displeasure with something that they do not agree with: content, process, opinions, other issues. They usually have a valid point. They just don’t know how to be functional about expressing it.

The Good News: You Can Help

Start with detection

Identify the type of dysfunction(s) you’re dealing with and understand the strengths behind that style as well as the potential weaknesses.

Roll that up with a clear view of five independent elements of personality that are present in all of us to varying degrees (more on these below), and you can begin to remove the “dys” and end up with functional.

Dysfunctional personas

Brilliant Asshole is a combination of many dysfunctional personas. Share on X

Here’s a handy reference list of a dozen classic dysfunctional behavior persona types, along with their strengths and weaknesses, from the Agile Coaching Institute:

PersonaBehavior Sounds LikeStyle StrengthsPotential Weaknesses
Dominating Don“Are we done yet?” “When will we move to action?”Keeps the ball moving forward; moves teams from talking about stuff to actually doing stuff.Can shut down a space/conversation with overbearing energy.
Working-on-other things Warren“I’ve got more important things to do.” “This meeting is a waste of my time… I have REAL projects that need my attention.”Brings awareness that the current process/topic may not be adding value.Disengagement may spread to others; Voice will be left out of the conversation if he/she is doing other work.
Negative Ned“This will never work.” “We tried this before and it didn’t work then… it’s not gonna work now.”Keeps the group grounded in reality of impediments to success.Shoots down potentially good ideas before they are fully formed.
Cautious Connie“This is too risky.” “Maybe we should wait this out & see what happens.”Has safety & quality as top priorities; keeps the group from “going off a cliff” they don’t see.Risk averse, may lose opportunities for growth by waiting too long.
Analytical Anil“We need more data.” “We simply don’t know enough to decide this right now.”Provides accuracy & details; keeps the group from “going off a cliff” they don’t see.Analysis paralysis; may overanalyze to the point of people losing interest altogether.
Snarky Sandra“Like they want THAT kind of creativity / honesty / feedback here.”Maybe the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” stating something the group is not ready to hear / discuss yet.May feel like a personal attack to whomever is speaking; could shut down the space/topic.
Silent Sara“I don’t want to upset anybody.” (thought, but not said aloud)Doesn’t “compete for air time” or restate ideas we’ve already heard; brings politeness to the space.Unwilling to share her piece of the puzzle / insight because it may cause conflict; maybe shy, introverted, etc.
Passive Aggressive PollyYou don’t know what she’s thinking… until she says it to someone else outside the meeting. Wants to maintain harmony (in the meeting); does not get in the way of ideas being moved forward (in the meeting.)Doesn’t share displeasure with the group. Talks about it outside the meeting with other people.
Tangent Tom“Do you remember this one time…” “What about THIS (very minimally related tangential topic to what we are talking about)?”May provide a burst of (unrelated energy when things are getting dull.Pulls focus of the meeting away from the stated purpose or objective.
Spotlight Sam“I, me, in my experience…”Willing to talk / share to get things started; may provide energy with stories.Likes to be hard, so may repeat ideas already stated; may prevent others from speaking.
Electronics EddieNothing will be SAID… he will be on his cell phone texting the whole time….It’s a clear sign that process or content is not engaging to this person. (Maybe the wrong person for the meeting.)Disengaged behavior may spread.
Late Comer Larry“Sorry I’m late… you know how it is to have back to back meetings.”Creates the opportunity to have a conversation about timeliness with the whole team / group.Derails meetings (everything gets repeated); sets a tone of “this is not important” or disrespect by coming in late.
©2013 Agile Coaching Institute

The Big Five: Bring out the canoe

The other aspect to consider: personality elements. Way back in the ’60s a model of traits was developed to help comprehend the relationship between personality and behavior. (Dysfunction is a behavior – not a personality.)

Subsequently and over decades and multiple sets of research using different methods, folks kept converging on the same five basic traits.

You can list them in one order and get OCEAN or you can rearrange ’em and get into a CANOE.

Either way, these traits are in all of us to varying degrees along a continuum from low to high. (you can take a free “test” and find out your profile here.)

Personality TraitDescriptors for low scoresDescriptors for high scores
Conscientiousness – Efficient/organized vs. easy-going/carelessCareless, lazy, unreliable, sloppy, easy-going, careless, spontaneous, flexible,Organized, reliable, hardworking, efficient, organized, dependable, self-disciplined, dutiful, prefer planning
Agreeableness – Friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detachedCynical, rude, uncooperative, analytical, detached, suspicious, antagonistic, competitive, argumentativeTrusting, helpful, good-natured, friendly, compassionate, cooperative, naive, submissive
Neuroticism – Sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confidentCalm, relaxed, unemotional, secure, confident, stable, uninspiring, unconcernedWorrying, nervous, emotional, sensitive, angry, anxious, depressed, vulnerable, unstable
Openness to Experience – Inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautiousConventional, non-artistic, consistent, cautious, pragmatic, data-driven, dogmaticCurious, broad interests, inventive, unpredictable, lack of focus, open to adventure, preference for novelty
Extraversion –Outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reservedReserved, sober, aloof, retiring, solitary, self-absorbedSociable, active, talkative, optimistic, outgoing, energetic, assertive, attention seeing, domineering

Neither low nor high ‘score’ on a trait correlates to ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Things are situational.

For example, a low level of extraversion does not automatically ensure effective communication and effective teamwork, as the persona of Silent Sara shows.

Moving on to Resolution

Culture is shaped by the worst behavior leaders are willing to tolerate. Share on X

How you approach dysfunctional behavior depends on both the mix of personalities as well as on the scale of the problem.

For example, if you’re dealing with a dysfunctional minority, it has been my experience that the best way to proceed is via 1-1 conversations.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a majority of the group behaving dysfunctionally (any combo of the persona styles), I believe it is best to face the situation publicly and discuss it as a group. Put the elephant on the table. Make it a retro topic.

Either way, 1-1 or in a group:

  1. Separate the dysfunctional behavior from the person. Realize that there is underlying displeasure with something.  Keep in mind the CANOE personality of the individual(s) as this will help you unravel the displeasure.
  2. Empathize with the symptoms you observe: “I feel like you, Sara, might be holding back.”
  3. Provide feedback on the potential upside of that behavior – the strengths inherent in that dysfunctional persona: “In the past, Sara, you’ve often had really valuable insights that others missed.” Also and equally important, consider the individual personality traits, where on the scale an individual is. Find the positive aspects of that trait. “When you do speak up, you always bring a pragmatic and sobering viewpoint.”
  4. Invite honesty: “Sara, how you are feeling, what is holding you back?”
  5. Address the root cause, get everyone’s interests on the table: Sara says, “I need more time to think through all of this, I have trouble with all this talking going on…and can’t make a decision on the spot like the rest of you apparently can.” (See: Collaboration: Interest-Based Conflict Resolution)
  6. Get agreement on the path forward: “How about if we give Sara some time to think, and we regroup tomorrow at this time?”

If You Can’t Get Past the Bad to the Good

dealing with dysfunctional behaviorWhat if you’ve done your best to make the problem visible…

You’ve also let someone know you find their behavior dysfunctional…

And still nothing about their behavior changes?

Perhaps you can try to change yourself. Access more patience and compassion and at that moment when you think you can stand no more, repeat to yourself:

Bengali Bengali Bengali. Thank you for the tea. Share on X

Recommended Reading related to Dysfunctional Behavior

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