First-class coach

I'm having a problem with some members of my department who are good at their jobs but very laddish in their behaviour and generally irresponsible in their attitude towards the company. Is there anything I can do to change things?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A: What is really at issue here is a clash of values. Your values seem to include treating others with respect and being loyal to the organisation, and these members of your team are infringing your beliefs about how it is appropriate to behave. It would be easy to categorise them as having no values, but perhaps more accurate to say their values are different from yours. Maybe what they value is freedom of action and expression and the right to have a laugh at work.

Whether you decide to do anything or not may depend on how serious the negative consequences are of this behaviour. Is performance directly (or indirectly) affected by their actions? Are they costing the company money by the way they behave? If so, having tangible data on the reasons why a change is required may be helpful in providing a rationale for your objections.

As you say, it is you who has the problem. You have several options: you can ignore their behaviour; you can try to protect those who are being negatively affected by it; or you can try to change what may not be expressed in just a few isolated cases but is in fact endemic to the organisation.

Laddishness is rife in some firms and even entire industry sectors, where it is the prevailing culture - accepted, or at least tolerated, by the majority. And there are laddettes, too, who exhibit a range of behaviours quite as potentially offensive as that of the lads - for example, drinking excessively, swearing and ridiculing others.

A client of mine inherited a department where laddish behaviour was the norm and performance was poor. He decided that this was the result of the prevalent drinking culture. Amid howls of protest, he instituted a policy of no drinking at lunchtime, Monday to Thursday. Unsurprisingly, productivity began to climb as people spent less time in the pub and worked with clearer heads in the afternoon.

While this man had the power to effect a change in behaviour by decree, you may not be in such a pivotal position. So what can you do that could make a difference? For a start, you can model the behaviour you believe is more appropriate. At appraisal or review time you can make your expectations clear, stipulating what you are looking for in word and deed. To avoid being accused of pettiness, concentrate on the most important area. Rather than risk generalities - easy to shrug off - cite specific examples of what you want. Spend more energy on the positive behaviour you'd like to see than on criticising past wrongdoing. Too much blame-casting only invites denial: after all, we all like to think well of ourselves. Ask your reports to identify what particular actions they are going to undertake to demonstrate this change, record your agreements and make a date to review progress.

If you have a say in salary or bonuses, you may be able to incentivise more appropriate behaviour (or sanction bad) financially. You may feel it is unsound to reward people for doing what they should be doing anyway, but adults are loathe to change habitual behaviours - especially enjoyable ones - so providing a benefit for doing so can greatly improve your chances of success.

One of the reasons people behave in this way, and also routinely commit small acts of dishonesty such as fiddling their expenses or their time-sheets, is that they don't feel a close connection with the organisation.

They fail to see that their actions - good or bad - have an impact on the company. They are part of the system but don't always feel an important part. Yet, cumulatively, these small actions of dishonesty or carelessness can sabotage an organisation.

Making individuals, and your department as a whole, aware of the contribution they make to the success of the organisation and, ultimately, to securing their own future employment, can be a powerful way of changing behaviour for the better. But how you handle this is important. Rather than being seen to sermonise, try to create the context where people can draw their own conclusions. If you play the preacher, you'll invite further rebellious behaviour from those whom you are dragging unwillingly to 'church'.

A final thought: making a stand against an aspect of unacceptable behaviour is possible but may be tough-going and unpopular. Sometimes, changing organisation is easier than getting the organisation to change.

If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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