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 finishes his five-part series on dealing with these irritants by discussing how office insurgents warp the culture they live in — and what leadership can do about it.
Let’s close out this series on ‘office insurgents’ with a look at what the effect that these disagreeable people have on the office culture where they work. I’ve found that the damage that insurgent-type disruptors inflict resonates in the office long after the offender leaves. People tormented by an ‘office insurgent’ develop sensitive scars that colour their future behaviour for years. Their culture warps, sometimes permanently, as an insurgent’s victims’ fears make them jump at shadows. This is why it’s critical for leaders to swiftly blunt such misconduct – and also take active steps to repair the damage that office insurgents inflict on their workplace culture.
I offered three case studies for this series: first a person who targeted all strangers indiscriminately. Second I introduced a person who specifically targeted only his peers and subordinates. Finally, I told the story of a person who targeted primarily his peers and superiors. In all three cases, the office insurgent wanted the same result; he wanted to be exempted from the rules and conventions that bound everyone else in the office. The insurgent’s ability to frighten or to annoy his prey paid dividends in the form of immunity from normal consequences for bad behaviour. It also afforded each of them increased power and influence in their respective organisations.
I chose these three subjects because their antics weren’t subtle. Their antics translate well to text without exaggeration; that makes them excellent teaching aids. Given enough time, their actions might even be a bit funny… although there was nothing amusing about any of them at the time.
A deep dive into the psychopathology of each of these miscreants shows that they were all probably afflicted by narcissistic personality disorder or something like it. Their distorted view of their own self-importance and license to abuse others suggests that each of these men was likely to cause trouble to matter where he wound up. That being said, I don’t want to dwell on their possible mental health issues. It’s only their conduct that matters for this series. That’s because anyone can become an office insurgent. It doesn’t require a dysfunctional psychological condition… just a willingness to use disturbing and antisocial tactics against one’s fellow employees for one’s own gain.
That’s the thing about most anti-social behaviours manifested in the workplace: people employ them because they work. If threatening people didn’t produce results, then only truly deranged people would threaten their co-workers. I’ve found that many of the people who engage in these sorts of shenanigans do it because it’s a cost-effective means of seizing and holding onto power. For some those, it’s a deliberate, cynical and exploitative act, not the product of mental illness.
This is because threatened violence gets results for the aggressor. It succeeds, in large part because of what it implies. A threat of violence at work is often much more effective at exerting power over other people than actual violence is. Consider: if an employee loses her temper and batters a co-worker, that employee’s misconduct almost always ends in termination. The aggressor gets fired for cause and leaves the workplace. After the separation, the victim doesn’t have to deal with her attacker anymore. Trauma can give way to healing.
By comparison, a person who believably threatens violence usually isn’t fired for it; if the aggressor was sufficiently subtle in their threats (e.g. using body language to suggest violence instead of using plain language to declare it), HR might be hard-pressed to take any sort of corrective action. The threat then hangs over the workplace indefinitely; the victim fears the eventual manifestation of the violence for as long as the two of them continue to work together.
Much like classic schoolyard bullying, the insurgent can then repeat his or her threats of violence to keep their victims constantly frightened. They can also threaten other members of the workgroup to spread their reputation as someone scary and dangerous. Eventually, the insurgent’s presence alone becomes enough to provoke a visceral fear reaction in the people that he or she has intimidated.
This long-term, oppressive dread affects lots more people than just the people who were threatened because those targets become anxious, frightened, distracted and ineffective workers. Other employees pick up on the targets’ fear of the insurgent and start to fear for their own safety. Thanks to the network effect, the workplace becomes a place of constant discomfort, fear and even misery. Most people grew up experiencing something like this in childhood, which makes the effects worse. Traumatic experiences from school days can amplify the fear produced during adult conflicts.
Adult life isn’t supposed to be like this, though; unlike a school, a prison or a military barracks, adult workers are supposed to be able to quit any time that they find their circumstances disagreeable. If a boss, peer or subordinate starts acting like a violent jerk, then their target should be free to refuse to be victimized and just walk away. That’s a beautiful theory, but it doesn’t really hold up. There are some people for whom this is true. I’ve known a few tech workers who had enough dosh set aside that they could quit any job on a whim and suffer no ill effects. That is to say, I’ve known a very small number of such people. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a one per cent-er; most of the people I’ve known couldn’t simply abandon their employment without the decision hurting them quite badly. 
Remember that most of the people present in a workplace are there because they want something. With the notable exception of the abovementioned dilatants, people working in the corporate world are only there because they have to be there in order to survive. Their presence isn’t a matter of self-actualization. Most workers need that pay cheque first and foremost, full stop. Most workers also want the company’s benefits package – sometimes as much or more than the pay packet itself.  Workplaces also offer access to the titles, key skills, restricted tools and other CV keywords that empower a worker to complete effectively for his or her next paid job. I feel that I cannot emphasize this enough: most workers have to work to live, so they simply can’t quit when things get difficult. It just isn’t economically feasible. This need makes people vulnerable to abuse.
This, then, is where the insurgent’s tactics work the best: when they can target their vulnerable co-workers. They go after vulnerable people, because vulnerable people can’t ‘afford’ to fight back. Put another way: the insurgent victims are optimal targets because they’re afraid not only of the physical harm that they’d receive from the insurgent’s threatened violence, but also of the economic harm that they’d receive from defending themselves, or from trying to escape the situation. The insurgent’s victims can’t resist, can’t leave, and can’t counterattack… Eventually the stress becomes overwhelming. Just thinking about the workplace starts to inspire feeling of fear and revulsion.
The office insurgent may appreciate this intellectually, or may only understand it through his or her predatory instincts. It doesn’t matter; the end result is the same. The office insurgent learns that the best way to intimidate their prey is to make their threats as scary and as believable as possible without every carrying through with them. This is what separates an office insurgent from a common thug: a thug is willing to actually inflict direct physical harm. An office insurgent blusters and roars, but never actually lands a blow. Most insurgents are smart enough to stop just short of that point-of-no-return.
This is what makes office insurgents a more insidious and long-term danger to a workgroup’s viability than a run-of-the-mill thug. A clever insurgent cultivates his or her mean reputation by constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptable workplace conduct, while being careful to never overtly break the company’s inviolable rules. They play a long game of disruption, fear-mongering, intimidation and extortion. They condition their victims to fold at the early signs of escalating aggression. It’s crucial to their reputation to keep the people around them constantly on edge. They can’t do that if they’re arrested, suspended or terminated.
Further, it’s critical to understand that office insurgents don’t constitute an existential threat to their office culture merely by existing. Culture isn’t a rigid, crystalline structure that resists attempts to change it; it’s a fluid construct, and it’s always in flux along its borders. Every time that a group’s members come and go, the group’s culture changes to reflect the new median of the collective values, beliefs, and interests of all of its members. It’s normal and appropriate for cultures to change. They’re supposed to.
That being said, office insurgents do threaten the integrity of an office culture through what they do… but indirectly. It’s not the insurgents’ antics themselves that damage culture; it’s how management responds to such antics that inflicts harm on their culture. When a worker acts inappropriately in a public context and gets chastised for the act, the group’s collective behavioural boundaries are reinforced. Every member is provided evidence to support his or her understanding of how the group views and acts on right and wrong. It’s only when management fails to correct a public act of misconduct that damage occurs.
Every failure to act threatens the integrity of the group. The insurgent becomes emboldened and often increases his or her aggressive conduct. The insurgent’s victims become demoralized and lose faith in management’s ability to protect them… and sometimes even in management’s willingness to protect them. Workers’ initial sense of shock leads to fear, uncertainty and doubt… and, eventually, to dread. This is hugely corrosive to good order, discipline, and productivity. The internalized fear reactions that an office insurgent inspires don’t heal quickly or easily. Both directly- and peripherally-affected workers become sensitized to the insurgent’s techniques, and react counter-productively to stimuli that don’t warrant a fight-or-flight response.
Further, the ‘edges’ of acceptable conduct within the group’s culture shift… every time that an office insurgent succeeds in pushing the boundaries further out, those boundaries don’t completely recover. Over time, the disputed zone between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ conduct erodes like a storm-wracked beach. Eventually, the moral and ethical centre of the group drifts to reflect the changing social topography; everyone starts to lose their inhibitions and act more aggressively.
This is why it’s absolutely critical that the people holding authority within a workgroup exercise that authority swiftly, confidently and decisively to counter their insurgents’ attempts to redefine the group’s understanding of acceptable behaviour. First-line management must strike swiftly to (metaphorically) bloody the insurgent’s nose and send them back inside the boundaries. Everyone else must see that threats and implications of physical violence will not be tolerated from any member against any other. Clear corrective action neutralizes the potential for deep-seated feat reactions to take hold in members’ psyches.
Workplace culture is entirely what we choose to make it, providing that we all make the effort to try. ‘Effort’, in this case, means engaging in active mentoring. There are two parts to this. First, mentoring refers to ‘the activity of supporting and advising someone with less experience to help them develop in their work’. When used to modify ‘mentoring’, ‘active’ means pre-emptive. That is, not waiting to be asked for advice. Not lingering until something fails before you step in, either. Not seeking permission or following a schedule. ‘Active’ in this context means taking the initiative to get involved immediately as soon as circumstances indicate a need.
Specifically, the leader needs to engage in three different kinds of mentoring:
- First, the leader needs to engage the source of the insurgency directly – preferably as close to the point of misconduct as possible. Make it clear that threatened or insinuated violence is prohibited and won’t be tolerated. Draw a line in the sand and then stick with it: all future violations of the standard must receive the same swift condemnation. Work with the aggressor to find acceptable ways to pursue his or her objectives instead.
- Next, the leader needs to engage the target of the insurgent’s intimidations. It’s leadership’s responsibility to not only mitigate the damage inflicted, but also to teach him or her how to fight back within the boundaries of acceptable conduct. Office insurgents are impotent against targets that refuse to back down in the face of their bluster. Further, one the attacked party realizes that the insurgent is ‘all flash and no bang’, their anxiety and fear will start to diminish – thereby furthering their willingness to defy their attacker.
- Finally, the leader needs to engage HR and Legal to start preparing for the worst-case outcome: what the company intends to do if or when the insurgent actually carries through on one of his or her threats. Waiting until after an attack wastes time and leaves bureaucrats frightened of doing the wrong thing; engaging early allows the leader to drive the process. Find out what it’ll take to have an aggressor arrested, charged and removed from the workplace so that everything is ready to launch immediately after it’s needed.
Finally, the leader needs to actively mange the evolution and maintenance of their workgroup culture as well. This involves discussing a broad range of topics, from setting clear expectations for employee conduct to crafting a sensible vision of the group’s raison d’être, to engaging the group’s members in earnest debate about what it’ll take to help everyone improve. The important part of these discussions is to constantly reinforce the core values of the organisation, and to cement expectations about how the group’s members are expected to behave.
An office insurgent’s ultimate goal is to secure immunity from the group’s behavioural expectations. It’s leadership’s goal to resolutely enforce the group’s expectations. With sufficient resolve, a good leader can – sometimes – rehabilitate a budding office insurgent, converting the would-be bully into a source of constructive creative disruption. A rehabilitation action like this is a huge win for everyone on the team and a victory for the organisation overall. Failing that, a leader’s duty to the organisation requires him or her to interdict their insurgent(s) as swiftly as possible.
Sometimes, despite a leader’s best efforts and intentions, the only way to thwart an office insurgent’s malevolence is to expunge them completely from the organisation. Have the courage to what’s necessary in order to protect the rest of the team. That means standing up to the Big Scary Violent character on your team. It also means putting that character down permanently once it becomes clear that they can’t be brought safely under control.
 Benefits are crucial in a place like the USA where employer-subsidized health insurance determines a family’s long-term economic survival.
 I appreciate that your experience may vary. Being free of money concerns seems like a truly liberating state of being. Your values, needs and expectations all seem to change to something quite alien to the rest of us. This isn’t to say that freedom from want makes a person evil; just hard to understand. Most of us would adore the chance to bludgeon an awful boss with his own BlackBerry; very, very few people can get away with it.
 Metaphorically ‘put down’… if possible.
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.