Dysfunctional team members are hard to deal with at the best of times.

They can frustrate you, perplex you and leave you wondering how to deal with them.

But, when you add remote work to the equation, it gets even more challenging.

How do you deal with dysfunctional people in the workplace when you’re working from home and can’t talk to them in person?

As you know, your company culture can take a deep hit if dysfunctional behaviors are allowed to fester.

Here are five strategies that can help you keep a healthy culture and deal with dysfunction when you’re leading people remotely.

1. Clarify Your Values

It’s one thing to have a mission and vision statement. It’s another thing for everyone in your organization to know and understand your values.

While company values vary, it’s a good idea to craft a few (with input from your team) that deal with how people can treat each other.

Moving beyond axiomatic values like ’empathy’ or ‘respect’ can be helpful. While I’m a huge believer in things like empathy and respect, when you see those on a sheet of paper the normal response is to say, “Well of course,” but then move on.

They’re so taken for granted that they can easily be ignored or dismissed.

Instead, try stating your values about how you treat one another more uniquely.

In my company, for example, two of the values are Choose Trust and Pursue Health. 

We pair a question with each value to further clarity.

For Choose Trust, the question is: Am I believing the best or assuming the worst?

That gives us a springboard to deal with things like gossip, cynicism and backstabbing.

The question associated with Pursue Health is: Am I living in a way today that will help me thrive tomorrow? That, again, becomes a springboard for conversations around how self-defeating dysfunctional behavior can be.

It’s hard to hold someone accountable for violating company values if you’ve never taken the time to define those values.

Defining your values for an in-person office is important. Defining them for a hybrid or remote work environment is essential.

2. Act Quickly

It can be hard to interpret human behavior and intent in person. It’s even harder online or when you can’t see a person in real life.

That’s why it’s even more important in a work-from-home setting to deal directly and quickly with behavior that feels off or even remotely dysfunctional.

Naturally, if you see something that’s blatantly toxic or malevolent, you should deal with it immediately.

But, often toxicity is more subtle than that. In fact, much of the time you’ll even be unsure if something is off.

The moment you begin to wonder if something might be off, act.

Small cracks can grow into big chasms quickly when you don’t have all signals you pick up from being in the same room with someone on a daily basis.

Things you would have picked up on immediately in an office can get missed for days, weeks or months when working remotely.

If you sense something is off, address it. A slightly awkward conversation now is far better than a really awkward conversation later.

3. Assume the Best

To make the conversation as healthy as possible, if you’re worried about someone’s behaviour, start by assuming the best.

The easiest way to do that is to ask the person in question if everything’s alright.

Here are a few ways to break the ice:

  • “Just wanted to check in to see how you’re doing. Is everything alright?”
  • “I thought we’d start here today, how are things going? How are you doing?”
  • “Hey, I notice a bit of a change in your attitude lately. Just checking in, is everything okay?”

Sometimes, that clears the issue up because they open up about something that’s going on in their life. It could be anything from them not sleeping well, having a family member that’s struggling or wrestling through some personal issues.

While you can’t solve that as an employer, you can empathize and offer support. And, often that will solve the problem you feel at work.

If it continues to impact performance, you now have a springboard to talk about it.

I have found this approach helpful because people bring their whole selves to work. While you can’t solve their life issues, being an empathetic ear often immediately improves workplace performance as people realize that something at home is impacting them at work.

And, if they need time off or some flexibility to deal with it, then you can discuss that.

4. Give Specifics

If that doesn’t resolve the issue (and, of course, sometimes it won’t), be as specific as possible.

Let them know how their behaviour is impacting their work and the team.

Reference a specific email or Slack message that left a bitter taste in people’s mouths. Or, discuss a particular meeting or set of meetings where they were disengaged or were critical of their coworkers. Or, talk about specific performance or key metrics on projects that are in jeopardy.

Referencing specifics makes it much easier for the person to address.

Healthy people will own their mistakes. Unhealthy people won’t.

That gives you a clear sense of what to do next as well, which may include letting someone go or limiting their influence.

For pro-tips on how to deal with a toxic person (including dismissal), check out this post.

5. Always Default to Video

What you probably like most (and in some cases, least) about the office is people.

Emails, texts, Slack and phone calls aren’t quite the same.

The solution? Default to video in your meetings. We use Zoom on my team, but you can use anything from FaceTime to Microsoft Teams to Google Meet.

Bottom line: When you see someone, you interact differently. You connect. You catch all the nuances of human communication.

Video helps as the default because it’s more likely to reduce dysfunctional behavior. It’s far easier to be snarky, sarcastic or dismissive via keyboard than it is via video.

Video is almost the best option next to face-to-face for dealing with conflict and disruptive behavior after it arises.

Nothing good happens when you’re angry and you’ve got a keyboard in your hand. Stop typing, start talking. Face to face. Human to human.

When you can’t be in the same room, video is the next best thing.

Here’s why that’s a good rule: Communication involves subtleties lost in emails, texts and other written communication.

Second, it’s way too easy to roll your eyes, mock or emotionally shut down on someone when you’re not actually talking to them. You can do all this when you’re on the phone in a way that video makes much harder.

So, as soon as the hint of conflict arises, set up a video meeting.

Your best shot at resolving dysfunctional behavior happens when you can see each other.

If you still can’t resolve it, then you’ve given it your best shot and can start taking subsequent steps.

What Rules Work For You?

What rules or practice work for you in dealing with dysfunctional behaviour in a remote team?

As more and more people work from home, this issue will be even more important in the future.

Scroll down and leave a comment!

Dysfunctional people are hard to deal with at the best of times. But when you add remote work to the equation it gets even more challenging. Here are 5 ways to deal with the challenge.

15 Comments

  1. bathroom faucet on April 5, 2021 at 1:44 am

    nice information for a new blogger…it is really helpful

  2. Laura Fields on March 30, 2021 at 1:08 pm

    I always try to tell as much as possible about my problem and how it affects my work. As for me, the working team should be friendly, then there will be no problems.

  3. Keith Harcombe on March 24, 2021 at 2:51 pm

    Hey Carey (et al),

    Just started new position over staff. Could you possibly place a link here of your staff values. I definitely like the ones you shared.
    Thanks
    Keith

  4. John Cockling on March 23, 2021 at 4:28 am

    I saw someone with his head in his hand, wondering how to deal with a dysfunctional team member.

  5. Peter Gilpatric on March 22, 2021 at 7:21 pm

    These are very great steps that can be taken in a very difficult culture right now. I appreciate your defaulting to “always looking for and assuming the best in someone”. That’s always a great place to start.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 23, 2021 at 7:04 am

      It’s always a healthy place, and if you’re wrong, 99% of the time you’ve lost very little or nothing. 🙂

  6. John Ryerson on March 22, 2021 at 3:45 pm

    You had to use a person of colour image for an article on dysfunctional?! Not good Carey

    • Kyle on March 22, 2021 at 7:27 pm

      Assume the best😉
      Maybe Carey is using this person of color as an example of a boss who is dismayed at the dysfunctional work habits of an employee.

    • Brenda on March 22, 2021 at 11:11 pm

      My first reaction to the photo was that the man in the photo is a top leader, and he’s the one faced with resolving the conflict in his organization, whatever that might be. Conflict is not a white or black issue, it’s a human issue. The person could have been male or female, Asian,Caucasian, African, or Eastern, young or old. Etc. In my opinion, to assume that people of color DON’T belong in an article discussing leadership challenges is a rather limited perspective.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on March 23, 2021 at 7:03 am

        I appreciate the question John, but Kyle and Brenda are correct. He’s the boss. Also ran it by a a black friend just to be sure who said she had no issue with it.

        • Kyle on March 23, 2021 at 7:13 am

          Well done Carey. We’re in the middle of a series on injustice from XP3, and the best thing I did was sit with friends who are black and ask their perspective before we started.

          • John Ryerson on March 23, 2021 at 7:45 am

            Listening to each other matters with respect and equality. Not charity. Thanks for your comment



        • John Ryerson on March 23, 2021 at 7:47 am

          Hi
          Perhaps the feeling that I need to check is the starting point for our own journey to end racism?

  7. Zeke on March 22, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    I’m looking forward to the great content!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 23, 2021 at 7:04 am

      Thanks!

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