Most people unconsciously conform to the unspoken rules and expectations of the workplace. This week, Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert launches a new five-part series on dealing with those difficult employees who not only refuse to conform, but also actively strive to undermine good order and discipline in the office.
Most of the people who work in the white-collar world are conflict-averse. I don’t mean that office dwellers lack passion, or that they’re somehow weak-minded; rather, I submit that people who make their living in cubicle mazes and conference rooms are generally unwilling to escalate to fisticuffs over a point of dissension. This isn’t because of cowardice or some lack of masculine virtues. Quite the contrary: it’s primarily due to the slow suffocating effect that a corporate environment has on people’s behaviour.
People unconsciously internalize the rules for proper and improper behaviour through their workplace experiences. Workers observe conflicts in the workplace, and are subtly inculcated with the organisation’s expectations by watching – often passively – as managers, offenders and other affected parties take action in response to the conflict. If actor X performs action Y and no one in the audience responds to said action, that action Y must be appropriate. The stronger that members of the audience react unfavourably to action Y, the more it becomes clear that action Y is considered inappropriate. Further, if actor X is censured or terminated for performing action Y, all of the observers come to understand that Y in an unforgivable action (even if and when it’s appropriate in the larger culture). These observations cement the group’s rules into everyone that watched the conflict unfold… and also into everyone that hears about it afterwards.
This continuous enculturation process ensures that all workers slowly conform to the organsation’s common behaviour standards (regardless of whether or not those standards are codified in official policy). These common touchstones cause people to act like each other without realizing it. As new members join, they too get slowly assimilated into the collective. This is normal human behaviour when people form groups.
Since groups are comprised of independent individuals, every core behaviour expectation in a subculture (like the office) has a range for compliance, sort of like a bell curve. Most people will conform reasonably well to a given expectation. That said, a percentage of people will always deviate from the expectation on the ‘underreact’ or ‘overreact’ sides of the expected behaviour range.
As a simple example, suppose that ABC Bank has a standing expectation that all day shift workers arrive at work at 9am. Of the 50 people employed by ABC, around 30 (the majority) will reliably arrive at 8:45, ±10 minutes, to ensure that they’re all ready to work at 9. Another 10(ish) will push their luck and arrive right at 9, ±10 minutes. Half of those get in right on time, while the others will be slightly late. These people are pushing the boundaries of acceptable conduct, but probably not enough to receive anything harsher than a light reprimand… only because the last group of employees are performing even worse. Those final 10 employees are the ones giving management and their co-workers grief  because they show up way too early (clocking on before they’re allowed) or too late (disrupting operations).
Many of these nonconforming workers are the office’s rebels: the people who regularly push the organisation to re-examine its values and standards; who force the collective to engage in some healthy introspection. The limits of the group’s tolerance – the point at which compliance is deemed inappropriate – are clearly defined when the group turns on the outliers with ostracism, censure or termination. Most rebels will push back against boundaries and expectations, but will return to compliance once the borders between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ are clarified.
Finally, there are the precious few workers who angrily refuse to comply. These are the handful of ne’er-do-wells who aren’t challenging the status quo in order to trigger positive, meaningful change. Instead, they’re challenging everyone and everything for selfish (and often spiteful) reasons. These outliers are the ‘office insurgents’, and I use that term deliberately. An insurgent, by definition, is ‘someone who opposes political authority’. These are people who deliberately challenge their leaders (and, by extension, their office culture’s expectations) because they feel (for whatever reason) that the rules governing the group don’t apply to them, or else that they should be immune to consequences for breaking the rules because they’re different from (or superior to) everyone else.
When it comes to office rebels, clearly communicating and enforcing fair performance standards will resolve a situation like the above attendance example. After all, a rule that isn’t communicated to the people affected by it is just a wish. A rule that’s debated, clarified and agreed to may be unpopular, but it’s just. This process doesn’t sway the office insurgent at all, because they don’t care why a rule has been issued, and they aren’t the least bit interested in perpetuating a stable social order. The office insurgent wants nothing less than total immunity. Therefore, the only way to reign in an insurgent is to enforce the listed consequences for whatever rule the insurgent is breaking. That’s where things fall apart: enforcement demands conflict. A manager must confront an office insurgent about their misbehaviour. Enforcement also demands commitment: a manager has to follow through on their threats of punishment if they’re going to be taken seriously.
In an academic world, this would be a simple problem to resolve. Here in reality… not so much.
See, managers also have to be willing to fight in order to compel compliance, which is why most managers fail their organisations when office insurgents are involved. This is because most people don’t want to be the ‘bad guy’ in a social relationship; they don’t want to be hated, or ridiculed, or socially excluded from the workers that they’re embedded with. Living amidst people that you’ve antagonized can be isolating and nerve-wracking. Managers are no exception to this rule. Therefore, it’s much easier for a manager to ignore seemingly-small infractions than it is to take necessary corrective actions. Vain hopes overshadow reason: maybe someone else will solve the problem. Maybe the offender will quit. Maybe the problem will solve itself.
That never happens. People problems don’t solve themselves.
Instead, an office insurgent becomes emboldened every time his or her manager fails to respond to a deliberate provocation. This is why some employees consistently manifest improper behaviour, even as the majority of workers consciously or unconsciously conform to the group’s expectations. These insurgents deliberately and consistently ‘push the envelope’ in order to prove to everyone that they can. In their minds, they’re proving to the world that they’re special… and they usually succeed. Every little act of defiance that they get away with ‘proves’ that they’re right, thereby further intimidating their cowed manager into silent inaction, and their peers into stunned ambivalence.
Oddly enough, some of those non-conformists on the edges of acceptable conduct are the most successful players in the office politics game. By publicly demonstrating that they’re not willing to comply with the company’s rules (e.g. ‘I do what I want!’), they conform to the common popular culture trope of the heroic nonconformist. This trope resonates strongly in populist American culture, where individualism and non-conformance are valued as admirable traits (even when those traits are counterproductive or are prejudicial to good order and discipline).
This is why some workers regularly push others’ boundaries and blatantly refuse to comply with the group’s expectations for proper conduct. By publicly refusing to conform, the insurgent not only gets to elevate his or her own desires ahead of the needs of the social order, they also solidify a reputation as being someone immune from consequences. In some cultures (like ours), this hooliganism makes the office insurgent politically and sexually attractive. Managers and ambitious underlings find him (usually him; sometimes her) attractive because they get things done where others can’t or won’t. Low-power co-workers find him attractive because he gets away with antics that they themselves don’t dare attempt. Political adversaries of the department where the insurgent works find the insurgent’s antics attractive because he or she ties the office manager(s) up in knots, reducing their ability to defend their domain. These allies make up the office insurgent’s primary audience and may encourage the insurgent to continue – or even to escalate – his or her antics.
This positive appreciation fuels the insurgent’s sense of entitlement and immunity; the office insurgent start to seek out new opportunities to buck rules and to intimidate others. They crave the adrenaline rush of a confrontation. They seek out confrontation, specifically to make others back down. In time, the office insurgent’s basic social rule breaking habit leads to full-on bullying, harassment and even criminal conduct because their sense of entitlement grows stronger with every successful confrontation.
In an ideal world, an office insurgent’s manager would shut him or her down immediately as soon as their misconduct manifested. In the real world, this is nearly impossible. Some friction at the edges of the social order is both necessary and productive; it helps the collective understand where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour actually lie. Further, crushing all dissent stifles good workers’ creativity and morale. More importantly, it’s very difficult to tell when a simple act of non-conformance indicates a vector towards future bullying. Therefore, given most people’s preference for avoiding conflict, managers will often fail to adequately quash their budding insurgents’ misconduct, in the vain hope that it’ll sort itself out. I’ve spoken to several young managers who (mistakenly) believed that they were giving their budding insurgents – and everyone else – room to find their place in the social order by leaving things alone. By the time it’s clear that a given worker is becoming an insufferable *#&$, it’s often too late to reign them back in without drama.
It’s important to stress that drama is one of the office insurgent’s primary weapons in the struggle to undermine management’s authority. When someone (be it a peer or a manager) challenges the office insurgent about his or her misconduct, the insurgent makes a disproportionately loud fuss. They get angry. They bluster and argue and threaten. A shrewd office insurgent can point to all of the previous times that he or she was allowed to do the exact same thing, and then argue that a precedent has been clearly set – that they’re allowed to do whatever it is that they shouldn’t be doing. Any attempt to change them now isn’t corrective action; it’s racism or sexism or some other form of personal attack. The insurgent turns the source of the conflict from their own misconduct to being about the other party’s implied personality flaws (thereby confusing the issue, and putting the ‘attacker’ on the defensive).
This can be traumatic for the insurgent’s manager(s). Managers quickly learn that confronting their office insurgent is an emotionally-draining and resource-intensive undertaking. The manager needs to make an extraordinary effort to have his or her evidence ironclad before initiating a new argument, since the insurgent will try to twist his or her way out of every assertion that management brings. Each new confrontation will take a long time because the insurgent will push back along every possible point of argument, no matter how tenuous. The insurgent’s intent is to exhaust management until the accuser no longer has the endurance to continue the fight. Then, once management quits the fight, the insurgent will publicly declare that he or she was ‘vindicated’ – knowing that the statement doesn’t have to be true for bystanders to believe it.
Co-workers also learn that confronting the office insurgent entails escalating directly to a fight. The insurgent wants to turn every confrontation into a knock-down-drag-out struggle for dominance. Instead of giving (metaphorical) ground in order to restore some reasonable expectation of reciprocity (as a reasonable person would), the insurgent treats every encounter as a zero-sum knife fight: they have to win utterly, and will push the other party right up to the limits of their tolerance for conflict until the accuser quits the battlefield.
That’s another aspect of the fight that managers have to be prepared for: fights with an office insurgent will usually get thrashed out in public. Everything that the manager says, writes or does will get ‘spun’ for public consumption. It doesn’t matter if the company has rules forbidding the discussion of administrative actions; the insurgent is already predisposed to break rules, and has a vested interest in rallying support from his or her sympathizers. Because of this, a manager can’t afford to be wrong when going after an insurgent, because any error that he or she makes will usually derail the attempt at corrective action.
It may seem like office insurgents are an inevitable product of the workplace. I’d argue that they are. They show up everywhere, and they tend to spawn copycats. Certain types of people are drawn to this role, because it’s a surer route to power and infamy than hard work or skill. It may also seem like these insurgent-types are impossible to control or to eradicate. That is absolutely not true. They can be controlled. They can be rehabilitated. And, if all else fails, they can be vanquished.
Come back to Business Reporter every Monday morning this month, where I’ll be discussing strategy and tactics for dealing with these fiends.
 There’s a common phrase in military circles that 20 per cent of your soldiers cause 80 per cent or more of your problems. That’s why commanders seem to be obsessed with correcting or eliminating a few ‘bad apples’, and inadvertently ignore their good workers (or take them for granted). This seems to be generally true in the corporate world, too.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.