How to deal with dysfunctional people at work

Is your organization disrupted by bullying or other damaging behaviors? Here are 6 strategies for taking a stand.
By Jennifer Wilson

All too often, while we're addressing something strategic in a firm, dysfunction emerges. Partners complain about firm governance systems that put the power in the hands of too few. Or we uncover a clique that "runs good people off" or a partner or key leader who is a dominator, bully, poor performer, or other major disrupter. Yet, at the same time, we find that those who privately share their concerns with us have done very little to address them directly.

Standing by and letting dysfunctional behavior persist is not OK—especially if it's demoralizing or de-energizing your people or clients, causing great people to leave, or affecting firm performance.

So, what can we do to stop from being a bystander? Consider these strategies to help you and others in your firm take a stand:

  • Face your fears. Why aren't you acting? What are you afraid of? Looking bad? Being the only one? Being wrong? Experiencing retribution? Losing your job? I agree that these are real potential risks of taking action. But what are the risks of not acting? Regretting your inaction? Losing great people? Devaluing your practice? Experiencing stress and losing energy and health? Losing your integrity? These are also real risks—and if the dysfunction has persisted for a while, these risks are probably already becoming reality. Taking action requires courage, which, it is important to note, doesn't mean you must be fearless. True courage is acting despite your fears.
  • Learn more. If a substantial issue in your firm needs addressing, research the issue thoroughly. Search professional trade journals and business publications for articles about the issue you face. You'll find many resources documenting potential approaches and solutions. Ask professional or industry experts, educators, or consultants with knowledge about your organization or industry for guidance and resources. Arm yourself with knowledge, and if you have been discussing the dysfunction with others inside your firm, consider sharing the information you learn with those interested parties as well.
  • Write down your thoughts. Document what you are experiencing in the dysfunctional situation and how it differs from what should be expected. For instance, if your firm isn't following the governance guidelines mapped out in your operating agreement, you would document the specifics: "When the firm's most recent decision to merge in a new practice was made on DATE, we did not take a vote in accordance with section X of our operating agreement, which calls for us to do so." Or if your partner yelled in a recent partner retreat, you might write, "Our core values call for us to treat each other with respect, but Alice's shouting in our retreat on DATE did not feel respectful." Consider the impacts of the dysfunction and document those, too. In the case of the merger, impacts would include undermining the firm's governance and ownership structures and potentially acting outside of legal boundaries. In the case of the shouting partner, the impacts would include shutting down meaningful conversation and contributing to a culture of fear. In both cases, impacts would also include reducing morale and team member engagement. Be disciplined and stick to just facts, removing emotional or judgmental adjectives or other "color" you might feel like including. Looking at the situation in a very factual manner will help you clarify the issues and may help strengthen your conviction to address them. Lastly, outline ideas for potential solutions or changes that could be made to the behavior, policies, or processes that would drive improvement.
  • Take a stand. While exact approaches will vary based on specific circumstances, here are a couple of general guidelines to follow for addressing dysfunction. Stick to the facts of what you expected and observed and the impacts that you documented previously. Then, ask for help in resolving the problem. Here are two possible approaches:
    • Address your concerns with the party or parties creating the dysfunction, if you can. This is always the first thing to consider, but it may not be the right option for you. If you feel you can address the matter directly with the person or people affecting the dysfunction, it's better to do so because they will have an opportunity to directly address the concerns and won't feel that you've gone around them or undermined them. But sometimes that doesn't feel safe or possible.
    • Raise the matter with an authority. If you don't feel you can address the issue directly with the interested parties, consider addressing your concerns with your firm's human resources group, your department head, the firm's executive committee, or your CEO (or, in the case of a small firm, a leading partner). If you have previously discussed the issue with peers but have not yet discussed it directly with those who can effect change, you may choose to ask the concerned group to support you in addressing the matter because there can be real strength in numbers when bystanders unite. There's a risk to this, too, as your firm may feel you've been triangulating or "stirring up trouble," so it's important in most cases not to enlist supporters who haven't been exposed to the problem. However, in some instances, the issues are so visible or well-known that the bystander chatter is loud. In those instances, it is important to make the firm's leaders aware that the issue affects many. This can help elevate the urgency for change.
    • Expect resolution. Be prepared to discuss ideas for possible solutions to the dysfunction. Recognize that some background or follow-up work may need to be done after you've raised the concerns and before a commitment or resolution occurs. Before you leave the discussion, ask for a specific date to meet again to discuss planned steps for resolution.
    • Write a recap. Consider writing a brief email expressing gratitude for the discussion and factually outlining your understanding of any next steps and plans for follow-up.

Sometimes, it takes just one voice to drive big change. Other times, it takes a choir. And, sadly, sometimes, the change won't happen no matter how many voices request it. But you won't know if you never speak up.

If no change happens after you've raised your concerns, you'll have a choice to make. To stay and accept the circumstances (which means giving up complaining about them) or remove yourself from the situation altogether. Only you can make that choice. And you must take ownership of the power you have to make it.

So, what will it be? Stand silently by and allow dysfunction to affect you and others? Or take a stand in the hopes of driving possible change?

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at

To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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