Hugh Laurie plays one of the most captivating characters on TV—Dr. Gregory House. He's brilliant. He solves medical mysteries no one else can. He saves lives. His skills are coveted by patients, doctors, and peers—and even the government has called for him.
Oh, and by the way, most people think he's a jerk.
He treats his staff like garbage, ridicules patients, has no respect for authority or rules, and will undoubtedly trigger a thousand lawsuits.
He makes for great TV entertainment. But would you want him working for you?
If only this were just TV, but sadly, there are a lot of real-life Houses, and they aren't limited to hospitals. In professional circles these difficult, high-performance individuals are referred to as "disruptive professionals." They can work in any field, in any industry. They are usually your best sales people, top money-makers, lawyers that rarely lose cases, or construction managers that never miss a deadline.
You can't live without them, or your business will suffer. Of course, you can't really live with them either, because your business already is suffering employee turnover, morale problems, legal litigation, and a black-eye to your brand reputation because of their actions.
So, what's a business to do? Intervene, and fast! Provide them with the means to change. Sound impossible? Not really. In fact, with timely and consistent intervention, they can be turned around.
Identifying disruptive professionals
The ultimate goal is to identify and coach the individual in question before you have other valuable employees quit (which will cost you about $10,000 to replace) or a lawsuit filed (which generally costs a lot more).
Disruptive professionals often are in leadership roles, and behave in a counter-productive manner in the workplace. They have verbal outbursts, bully others, intimidate direct reports, and talk down to colleagues. Their behavior is designed to control and intimidate, and they're excellent at it.
In most organizations, an employee or customer will report an issue to a company before taking more aggressive action. In those cases, the issue usually is brought to the attention of a supervisor, manager, or HR professional. In organizations like a law firm, the issue may be taken directly to partners.
Often it will come to management's attention through the legal department as the result of a lawsuit filed. Although there may still be an opportunity to retrain the individual in question, you'll feel some unnecessary sting from not having acted more quickly.
How to Help a Dr. House
In the FOX TV show, Dr. Cuddy, the Dean of Medicine and a hospital administrator, always tries to get House to behave. She makes it clear that she disapproves of his behavior, but rarely enforces consequences because his brilliance is "worth the trouble." It's part of the tension between them that drives the drama forward.
But in the real world, it's never worth it. The frustration and emotional toll it can take on your business is costly beyond dollars, and hard to repair the longer the problem festers.
Here's what human resources professionals can do to take control of the situation and begin to manage a disruptive personality:
- Call your employee assistance program (EAP). The EAP can help you create a plan, guide you through the initial steps, and provide recommendations for experienced behavioral coaches in your area.
- Document examples. Your EAP likely will advise you to document examples of the disruptive employee's behavior so you can discuss it with them at an intervention. Clear examples will make any conversation with the employee more effective.
- Create guidelines. If you want change, you need to clearly outline a set of goals and expectations for the employee to meet. Without this guidance, your desired results are up to interpretation, and the employee may set off on his or her own desired path.
- Define clear consequences. A disruptive employee needs to understand they have a vested interest in complying with your request. It may not be pleasant to put an ultimatum on the table, but it usually gets results. Then you must plan to enforce those consequences—or, like Dr. Cuddy, you may have an employee that is consistently testing their boundaries.
- Confront the employee. With examples, guidelines, and defined consequences in hand, an HR executive, supervisor, and/or legal counsel will need to confront the employee directly. To make the discussion effective, you'll also need to discuss next steps and a timeline.
- Assess the employee. A high-touch EAP, (which has experts with clinical, HR, and anger management skills) usually will provide an initial assessment to rule out substance abuse and other emotional challenges. Then, a behavioral coaching executive can help assess the professional's levels of anger, triggers, behavior style, and emotional intelligence to create a tailored coaching program.
- Coaching. A good coaching program will span about three months, consisting of 1 to 1.5 hour sessions with the disruptive individual and skilled expert. Sessions are typically once a week for at least a month, and then slowly spread out. Individual coaching is important because there are a wide range of factors that may be triggering the disruptive behavior. Common explanations include stress, personality style (to intimidate and control), the way an individual was brought up in the ranks (hazing), perfectionism, or high standards. And it could be the fact it works—they get results when they bully people.
The costs of inaction
As mentioned earlier, disruptive professionals often are good at what they do. They are high producers that have a lot to offer an organization. If the behavior can be altered, or they can be taught more effective strategies, then it's well worth the investment of helping them. However, if left untreated, a House can really impede the health of your business. He can dramatically impact productivity, employee retention, and the number of hours burned by your legal team, not to mention the high cost of turnover for employees who simply refuse to put up with the abusive behavior anymore.
Every employee that leaves to avoid these disruptive professionals costs a business at least $10,000 to replace and train. Lawsuits by former employees can cost businesses much more. And the damage to your brand image if customers begin complaining publicly, your organization ends up in the media because of a lawsuit, or organizations such as the Better Business Bureau begin investigating you?
More than you want to think about. Proper "House" training is worth the investment.
Maureen Dorgan-Clemens is vice-president of organizational consulting services at Perspectives Ltd. She has more than 24 years experience consulting with organizations around management development, team development, conflict management, performance coaching and leadership training, and EAPs. In addition to her Masters in Clinical Psychology and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor credential, she holds a certificate in Human Resources Consulting, and is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst.