Why do people behave badly at work? Four drivers of bad behaviour

April 27, 2018

Imagine you see someone behaving badly at work – maybe doing something ethically questionable or taking their anger out on the trainee or not pulling their weight in a crisis. If you’re like most people, you’ll attribute that behaviour to some aspect of their character – he’s dishonest, she’s aggressive, they’re lazy and so on – unless you know them and like them and then you’ll say it’s ‘out of character’. The basic idea that behaviour is driven by character remains though.

If it’s us behaving badly, however, it’s different. We’re not like that, there were mitigating factors, we’re not proud of it, obviously but, to quote the (highly-recommended) Netflix series Bloodline “We’re not bad people, we just did a bad thing”. The reality is that everyone’s behaviour is driven by a complex mix of factors that are not all to do with our individual personalities or even our conscious choices. In this article, I’ll look at four drivers of behaviour which are not to do with the individual.

1. The strength of the situation

In a strong situation, the situation itself dictates how people behave so there is little scope for individual differences to play out. For example, it doesn’t matter how introverted or extroverted you are, if you’re part of a theatre audience you’re likely to sit quietly and watch the performance. If you don’t, it’ll be made clear to you pretty quickly that your behaviour is unacceptable. In a weaker situation, like a random day in the office, the situation does not constrain behaviour in the same way, so there is more scope for other factors to influence behaviour. Some work situations, such as formal presentations, are stronger than others. Ironically, people often worry about bad behaviour in strong situations – “Will someone show me up in front of the Chairman” – where the risk is lower (though the stakes may be higher), but worry less about everyday situations where bad behaviour is more likely.

There is one caveat to that. I’m talking about overt bad behaviour. Unethical behaviour can take place in quite strong, formal situations. signing contract.jpgIf you’ve watched dramas like McMafia or The Night Manager you’ll know that people can use the trappings of formality, signing a contract printed on high quality paper with a Mont Blanc pen at a mahogany board table to agree an illegal arms sale or carve up drug-trafficking routes. It may lend the proceedings a degree of legitimacy, even though everyone knows the contract would be enforced with a baseball bat not a barrister.

2. The Environment

The environment affects us in ways we’re not even aware of. Being in nature – or even looking at it out of the window – makes us happier, more creative, kinder and enables us to recover more quickly from illness.  Simply having pot plants in the office has significant beneficial effects. And it’s not just the natural environment. Light levels, noise, temperature, colour and design features all have an imperceptible impact on us. People are cued to behave differently in a hushed, wood-panelled office with thick carpet and very traditional furniture compared with a bustling hipster co-working space with bean bags and a ping-pong table. One environment suggests formality, perhaps deference, the other doesn’t.

There’s a growing field of design to encourage certain types of behaviour – collaboration, creative thinking and so on. I know little about such wizardry but I do know from experimental evidence that you are more likely to drive a hard bargain in a negotiation if you are sitting on a hard chair. airport urinalOn a very practical note, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam has demonstrated that you can reduce the problem of wet floors in gents’ loos through the use of a strategically-placed picture of a fly on each urinal. Apparently, you guys like to aim at things.

3. Cultural norms 

Cultural norms let us know how things are done around here – what’s acceptable, what’s not and what you’ll get away with. I assume that in Texas it’s fairly unremarkable to take your gun to a business meeting, whereas here in Bath it would be considered rather a serious breach of etiquette. There isn’t a universal standard for what’s considered bad behaviour. That applies across company cultures as well as national cultures. Different types of bad behaviour may be encouraged, condoned or overlooked in cultures which are ‘dog eat dog’ competitive, ‘show no vulnerability’ macho or ‘it’s just banter’ laddish, to name just a few.

How your organisation views regulation or approaches questions around diversity will give people a sense of what they need to take seriously, what’s just lip service and what they can get away with. The reaction when things go wrong also gives people clues as to how they should behave. Do you all look embarrassed, pretend it didn’t happen and move on? Do you maturely analyse what went wrong in a blame-free way? Or is there a relentless witch hunt to find and punish the culprit? Bad behaviour can be simply a form of self-protection in some environments.

4. Group dynamics

Group dynamics involve the individual and may be shaped to some extent by a person’s characteristics, particularly if they are quite dominant or hold a powerful position in the group, but they can never be entirely determined by one person. For example, the dynamics will be different if there is just one dominant person in a group compared with if there are two, particularly if neither of them is the official group leader.ostracised Group dynamics vary and lead to different types of behaviour depending on where formal and informal power lies, how much trust there is between group members and how much they share values and goals. If you have two clear factions (within or between departments) people may behave badly towards the other lot, particularly if their ‘in group’ feels threatened.

Group dynamics and culture can interact to create conditions where bad behaviour may thrive. Imagine a very competitive, bottom-line driven culture, paying lip service to regulation with a few maverick rule-breakers at the top and a lot of people who don’t question authority lower down. Are these the conditions that led to the numerous financial mis-selling scandals of the last few years?

There are, of course, many drivers of behaviour that are entirely individual. Our personalities, values and motivation influence our behaviour, as does the shadow side of our personality (a particular driver for bad behaviour) and even our level of intelligence – people may behave badly if they don’t really understand the situation and jump to conclusions, as a quick look at Twitter will demonstrate. But you can’t take a person out of context and, if you have issues with people’s behaviour in your organisation, it’s worth looking at it more broadly than just a few bad apples. Sometimes you have a bad orchard.

If you’d like to talk about behaviour issues in your organisation, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

Photo credits

Gai Comans



Astrid Westvang

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