Office insurgents are people who use aggression, threats, and conflict to prove that they’re exempt from the company’s rules. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert continues his five-part series on dealing with these difficult employees with the tale of a swaggering jack-wagon who wanted to fight over a conference room reservation.
There’s always that one person in the office. The one who’s quick to start an argument. The one who seems always right on the edge between yelling and throwing a punch. The person that no one wants to be around because they go out of their way to inject unnecessary drama into everything. The person who seems to be able to get away with murder. You’re probably picturing a specific face right now, because every office has one of these. This isn’t a coincidence. They’re everywhere.
February’s series explores how most people in the white-collar world are conflict-averse, and how some workers operate on the fringe of expected behaviour standards to gain an advantage over their competitors. These ‘office insurgents’ are people who bluster, threaten, stomp around and otherwise relish confrontation with their peers and superiors in order to secure a special exemption for themselves from the norms that govern everyone else’s workplace conduct.
I argued in last week’s series introduction that this sort of misconduct is a shrewd (and vile) tactic employed by people who (a) can’t or don’t want to get ahead on merit, and (b) are interested in carving out and maintaining a perpetual exemption from collective conduct standards. There are people who push the envelope in a creative way, and then there are these fiends: people who make everyone else’s lives miserable because it advances their selfish, counterproductive and anti-social agenda.
Let me a frame the problem with an Evil Bob story.  The context was a Fortune 500 corporation in the USA. I was a program manager at the time. My job included hosting weekly meetings for the department heads in my division. At the start of the new fiscal quarter, a number of my key stakeholders asked for a time change for one of their project meetings to accommodate some distraction. I cheerfully agreed, made arrangements for a new mutually-acceptable time, and used the company’s online space reservations system to find an available conference room that was close to the division’s wing of the complex. It was all routine administrative work, boring and easy.
On the first morning of our meeting’s new time and location, I arrived ten minutes early to set everything up. I cleared the whiteboard, wrote the name of the meeting and my agenda on the board, dialled into the conference bridge and reviewed my notes.  We weren’t due to start until five minutes after the hour, because I’d programmed in a small buffer for those people who had meetings the hour before – I made time for them to make it down the hall without sprinting. 
Right at the top of the hour, while I was waiting for my first attendees to show up, a large man that I’d never met before strolled into the conference room and uttered a disgusted snort. The man was heavyset, but carried himself with an exaggerated swagger – he was deliberately exaggerating his physical prowess. He’d also shaved his head bald to emphasize his ‘bad boy’ look. I sized him up with a glance and tried to suppress a smirk. I figured I knew what was about to happen.
Sure enough, the stranger went on the offensive immediately. ‘It seems like someone has started my conference call for me,’ he said.
I immediately knew what the fellow was playing at. He was blustering – using a combination of physical and verbal aggression to try to intimidate me into kowtowing before him. There was absolutely no reason for him to do so other than to establish his dominance over me; the man wasn’t interested in having a meaningful or professional discussion. All he wanted to do was to make me back down before his superior presence. I wasn’t having it.
I smiled at the stranger, indolently leaned back in my chair, and said: ‘No… I’ve dialled into my conference call for my meeting.’ I gestured behind me to the whiteboard where I’d written the meeting particulars down in script large enough to be read easily from the conference room door. ‘But you’re welcome to participate if you like. Make yourself confortable.’ I gestured at an empty chair.
The stranger was taken aback. I could tell by his expression of indignant confusion that he wasn’t used to people standing up to him. He wasn’t sure what to do. Rather than try a different tack, the fool doubled-down on his opening gambit. ‘Uh… no,’ he said and slammed his notebook down on the table. ‘I have this room reserved for my weekly department call.’
I gave him my best pert-and-perky smile and said: ‘I’m pretty sure that you don’t, because I have it reserved… and I have a receipt.’
The stranger’s face started to colour with rage and he took an aggressive step towards me. ‘I’ve had this room reserved for this time every Wednesday for the past three years,’ he said. Behind him, two more men in sloppy business casual started to enter the conference room then stopped cold, clearly not wanting to get involved.
‘Hmmm,’ I said, feigning sympathy. ‘Tell me… what system did you reserve the room in?’
The man didn’t have the wits to notice that he was charging headlong into a trap. ‘I have a standing reservation for this room in Microsoft Exchange,’ he said, puffing his chest up.
‘Ah. There’s your problem,’ I said. ‘Corporate replaced the old local Exchange protocol with a nationwide, web-based reservation tool… back in January. Facilities made it clear that Exchange reservations were forbidden and would no longer be honoured starting six months ago.’
The man glared at me like I’d challenged his manhood. In a sense, I had. ‘Well, I never heard about any new system,’ he said.
I shrugged. ‘That’s odd. Everyone in the United States received six warning messages about it both before and after the change.’ I broadened my smile and leaned forward. ‘I can forward copies of the announcements to you if you like.’
The man took a step back, unsure of how to proceed. He was so accustomed to people folding in the face of his bluster that he wasn’t sure whether to get ever more aggressive or to withdraw. I used his pause to go on the attack.
‘Tell you what,’ I said – drawling slightly, for effect. ‘I plan to work through my agenda pretty quickly this morning. I should have my meeting wrapped up in about 20 minutes. I have the room reserved for the entire hour, but I won’t need it once my meeting’s over. So, if you’d like to hang out for a bit, I’ll be glad to let you use it for the rest of the hour after I’m done with it.’
My offer was – on the face of it – a perfectly reasonable attempt to compromise. He’d get to hold his meeting in the place where he’d called it. He just had to passively allow me (the person holding the superior position) to finish, and then wait for me to deign to allow him to have what was left of the reservation. I knew the man’s type; he wasn’t interested in cooperation or compromise. He couldn’t ever admit that he’d made a mistake. He had to be the baddest, meanest dog in the junkyard.
Sure enough, the stranger twisted his face up in a venomously nasty expression, snatched his notebook off the table, and stormed out – pushing past his nervous subordinates. ‘Is anyone in this other room?’ he snapped. ‘We’re taking it!’
I smiled and waved, resisting the urge to call out a cheerful, ‘Bless your heart!’ 
He stomped off without turning around.
Here’s the thing: this office insurgent was a perfect example of the anti-social conduct that I want to explore this month. Let’s break down the making of the conflict:
- Our Bob been informed of a new (mandatory!) company-wide policy and had either refused to accept it, or had ignored multiple warnings about it. That was blatantly unprofessional.
- During the six months since the policy’s introduction, he’d surely experienced at least one reservation collision. Statistically, it was impossible not to encounter one – especially during peak utilization times, when 90 per cent of rooms in our building were booked. Therefore, he’d certainly encountered someone else reserving ‘his’ room before, and hadn’t bothered to correct his behaviour. That suggested that he wanted to fight over room reservations.
- When Bob found me occupying ‘his’ room, he didn’t try to use courtesy or negotiation to resolve the problem. He immediately initiated a verbal offensive and tried to appear physically imposing. That tipped his hand: a professional leads with a face-saving apology and then tries to work out a mutually-acceptable solution. Not this clown.
- Bob only appealed to protocol (‘I have this room reserved’) after I refused to cave in the face of his blustering. Even then, he was bluffing. I could tell from how he said it that he didn’t believe his own lie.
- Throughout our encounter, Bob never once asked me who I was or what position I held in the company. He never introduced himself or asked who I was. He never tried to learn if I out-ranked him. Anyone occupying a director-level or higher position in the company could ‘bump’ him out of ‘his’ reserved room on a whim simply by pulling rank.
All of those clues – both observed and inferred – showed me that this Evil Bob was an office insurgent: that is, a rule-flaunter and a conflict junkie. The man got off on forcing people to retreat from his anger. He wasn’t interested in getting along with his co-workers. He didn’t give a fig about complying with the company’s rules. He craved conflict. He needed to demonstrate to me and to his entourage that he played by his own rules – and that he was entitled to take whatever he wanted, because he was somehow better than everyone else.
Bob ‘lost’ the encounter because he was unprepared to deal with firm resistance. He’d been allowed by his managers to bully his co-workers for so long that he wasn’t sure how to regain the initiative once I went on the (conversational) attack. Further, he didn’t know how to respond to someone who wasn’t mirroring his physical aggression in playground fashion.
From a tactical perspective, all I did was apply three simple techniques. These are tactics that most everyone can do to counter their own office insurgents:
- I’d made sure that I knew and had followed the company’s rules to the letter for securing the conference room (the object in dispute) before our encounter. That gave me the unassailable moral high ground.
- When Bob started his blustering, I refused to respond in-kind. My tone, body language and phrasing were all non-threatening. That was so I couldn’t be accused of provoking him. That was more for the observers’ immediate benefit and for the lawyers’ eventual. It worked, because any physically aggressive action that Bob took in turn would be viewed negatively.
- Lastly, I was prepared to take a punch. This is important! Yes, Bob outweighed me by at least a stone and looked like he had a great deal more upper body strength than I did. If Bob punched me, it’d probably hurt a lot. On the other hand, that physical blow would end Bob’s career. There would be physical evidence of and witnesses to an act of unprovoked assault and battery in the workplace. One call to the legal office and Bob would be fired. An additional call to the police would get him arrested. Was that worth a few days of pain and a trip to the A&E to me? I think that it was. I’ve endured worse for less.
It’s the threat of socially-repugnant violence that gives office insurgents draw their power. Their bluster and aggressive conduct all presupposes that other people will surrender and retreat before they actually have to follow through on their implied threats of physical violence. They want people to be afraid of them, because fear stays with a person long after an encounter is over. All of the bullying conduct that they apply in the office is meant to keep that fear response alive in their victims. That said, most office insurgents are rational enough to know that they can’t actually go through with their implied violent act.  Throwing a punch would be an irrevocable step over the social ‘red line’ that separates ignorable and unforgivable conduct in the workplace. Management would (finally!) have no choice but to take action.
In essence, all I was doing was calling Bob’s bluff. I saw him as a swaggering braggart, challenging everyone that crossed his path to a highly-public duel to the death in the town square at high noon, cowboy style. The vast majority of people in the office weren’t willing to gamble with their physical safety around a violent (and clearly unrestrained) person like Bob, so they backed down. That gave Bob his ‘street cred’ as a virtual gunfighter even though he’d never actually fired a (metaphorical) shot. Not to say that he wouldn’t, but Bob was rational enough to realize that he didn’t really want to gamble with his professional life over something petty. When I stared him down, he blinked.
You can do this too. Seriously. You can. It requires some acting ability (to remain outwardly calm, even when your heart is racing). You need a measure of physical courage (to accept the punch, if it comes ) and you need to do your homework (to make sure that you’re in the right when you ‘go to guns’ with your Bob). That’s all. If you can stand your ground with one of these blustering buffoons, they’ll usually back down because they don’t have the cajones to go all the way. You win, without having to stoop to the office insurgent’s level. All it takes is some cold blood and a colder stare.
 In all fairness, I don’t actually know what the jerk’s real name was. We were never introduced.
 I prefer organized meetings. Mine start on time, exactly when I say they will. Dawdle at your peril.
 It’s a simple trick, but it makes a huge positive difference. Scheduling meetings back-to-back with no carve out for travel time is moronic.
 A Southern colloquialism meaning ‘*#&$ you’.
 They might getaway with it in someplace like old Soviet-era Russia. Not in modern Britain.
 In those rare circumstances where your Bob really is unhinged and is willing to engage in violence in the workplace, leave that company. Any employer that’s willing to keep a violent employee on the payroll isn’t worth working for. No one should have to worry about being deliberately physically harmed by a co-worker. Get out, take all of your mates with you, and never look back.
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.