3rd September 2018

“What about ME?!’’ – How to Deal with Disruptive People

We have all experienced how disruptive, even toxic, certain individuals can be – digging their heels in obstructively over an important issue, refusing to engage or become part of a team, actively undermining group purpose and cohesion or a group leader. They may even manipulate everything and everyone to suit their own purposes without regard for others (and we can probably think of an individual or two that exemplify these traits on the global stage at the moment …).  If we are honest, we have probably acted in such a way ourselves at some time, particularly when under intense pressure  …

My two year-old grandson reminded me of the root of these behaviours recently. When we were discussing going somewhere or having some food he would ask with great urgency “Wha’ ‘bout me, Grandad?”. It is often just this two-year-old response that underlies that disruptive adult behaviour.  If young children don’t receive the attention they need for their emotional and social development and well being in a positive way, they throw a ‘tantrum’.  Many learn that this is the only way to get attention (careful with those mobile phones!), because negative attention is better than no attention at all … and this is the deeply conditioned strategy they take with them into adulthood for how to get what you want – suitably disguised, of course!

We know that when a person’s need for attention and/or control is challenged or undermined, this can lead to an ‘emotional hijack’, where the adult, rational self is undermined by powerful emotional reactions from a ‘lower’ neurological level. The person literally throws an ‘adult’ version of a tantrum …

However disruptive and unpleasant this may be for anyone else involved, that person, like the tantrum throwing toddler, is in pain - they are experiencing emotional stress and tension that, for whatever reason, they are unable to cope with/process. They lack the ‘inner resources’ necessary to remain balanced and their unmet need spills out as they desperately look for others to deal with it for them (often through the use of ‘blame’, which is defined as “A mechanism for discharging pain and discomfort”!).

The role of the leader here is to provide enough ’support’ to distract/deflect the attention of the individual from the painful stimulus (sound familiar from your early parenting days?) through reference to a different issue/need, or a broader frame of reference (reframing, establishing the unwanted reality as a ‘third-party’ fact affecting all …). 

Ultimately,  finding a way of enabling the person to understand that the answer to their problem (the satisfaction of their unmet need) lies on their own hands and, if necessary, helping them to identify what they need in order to ‘help themselves’ is the answer.

As with a parent, the leader cannot afford to become the child too. To interact with the toddler in their own terms, by getting angry, shouting, or withdrawing, is to revert to the age of two oneself and get caught in the ‘toddler’s’ game. The leader must remain in the adult space with the purpose of enabling the ’tantrum thrower’ to adjust to the realities of the adult world. Remaining in the ’space’ that presence provides means that you can see the person and their need rather than getting hijacked yourself and seeing only your own anger, judgement, frustration… and by remaining in that space you can more clearly see the questions, comments, actions and timings that can most quickly and effectively resolve the situation for the greater purpose.

Presence, Purpose and Positive Intent (for self, others and the team) at all times …


Try noticing how much of peoples actions/behaviours are driven by “Wha’ ‘bout ME?“, i.e. the need for attention – and seeing where this need overrides the professional or group purpose and need.  Examples could be where one feels a compulsion to say something in a meeting when there is no need, or where someone makes a negative intervention just when the group is about to come to agreement … I am sure you'll be able to find many more …

What About ME?!

What About ME?!

Posted by Jefferson Cann

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