How To React to Disrespectful Team Members Correctly

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Successfully managing disrespectful team members can be difficult.

Cheeky answers, rolled eyes, disrespectful body language. The list of things brash team members do can continue endlessly. Their intentional or accidental behaviors can drive young managers to despair at the end of the day. 

Disrespectful team members are a real challenge for young managers.

There are team members whose disrespectful behavior exceeds the wildest expectations. At the very least, the behavior of some contemporaries seems downright unreal. Bored yawning in a meeting, demonstrative eye-rolling during a briefing or even insinuating jokes in front of the entire team can set any manager on edge.

The problem is that unconventional team members can be highly productive, creative and simply good at what they do. They are lateral thinkers who like to step out of line. This is not a problem, as long as disrespectful, negative behavior does not affect the overall working atmosphere and team spirit.

When this behavior becomes excessive or crosses boundaries, managers need to take countermeasures as confidently and professionally as possible.

One of the keys to this is targeted communication and body language! Overly cheeky team members are crying out for feedback. 

How clearly do young managers need to respond to impertinent behavior by team members? What can they let pass, and in which situations is immediate action required?

To ensure that you can react confidently to impertinent behavior in the future, keep the following tips in mind.

React immediately—But Respectfully

If you are present as a manager, e.g., in a meeting, you can use a short clearing of the throat in combination with a serious look in the direction of the respective team member. This signal is usually well-received.

In the event of minor lapses, this prevents the team member from losing face. Afterwards, however, a four-eye discussion is appropriate so that the team member understands why they received the serious look.

Practical Tip for the Feedback Discussion

It’s best to start the conversation on a positive note: 

“Your cooperation is very constructive, and your performance is good.” 

Only then should the personal observation follow: 

“That’s why it’s important for me to talk about our cooperation. I noticed that you lie more on the chair in the meeting than you sit.” 

Here, the personal impression rounds out the observation: “To me, that seems bored and disrespectful.”

Impudent Team Members Need a Clear Direction—Define a Goal

Even if the message has reached the impudent team member that the behavior was unprofessional, in practice, a clear goal is often lacking. 

Managers often make the mistake of making vague statements, such as “Please do better!  / Please try to be more friendly! / etc.” The problem with these statements is that even if the brash team member accepts them, their implementation is still a matter of interpretation.

That’s why I recommend that you formulate a clear wish or goal at the end of your feedback. It can look like this: “I wish from you /expect from you that you adopt an upright and respectful posture in future meetings.”  

End the Conversation With an Agreement

After such a conversation, be sure to obtain an agreement from the team member. This works quite simply with a short query. “Agreed?”

If you want to keep it shorter and even more specific, end the conversation with a simple “Thank you!” and turn away from the interviewer. That way, it’s clear that there’s nothing more to discuss from your side. You firmly assume that the team member will implement your wish/goal. Especially in the case of behavioral feedback, you can use this to end the conversation very effectively.

Dealing With Extreme Cases—Eye Rolling, Insinuating Remarks, Etc.

If a team member behaves extremely disrespectfully and insolently, whether towards you or other colleagues, you as a manager must react IMMEDIATELY.  But your reaction should also be moderate.

In practice, the following procedure has proven effective: 

  • keep silent for a short time, 
  • seek eye contact 
  • ask, “Are you rolling your eyes? …. Does this topic annoy you?” 

It must be clear who is setting the tone in the team, and that respectful interaction is essential to you as the manager. After the meeting, it is advisable to talk to the team member in private.

You can also announce this conversation directly in the meeting by saying: “Please stay here for a moment after the meeting. I would like to talk to you.”

With this clear announcement, it is, of course, clear to all participants that a clear conversation will follow later. However, this is also important for your image as a consistent leader when dealing with disrespectful team members.

Your Experience With Impudent Team Members

Are you concerned about the issue of impudent team members? Do you have colleagues or team members who behave like me (or worse)? Then write to me!

Feel free to send me a message or a contact request on Xing or LinkedIn. Of course, I would also be happy if you share this article with your network if someone there is struggling with brazen team members.

If you need more inspiration for having a difficult conversation, I also recommend my new online seminar, “Having difficult conversations at work: conflict management.”

Foto iStock

About the coach​

Kai Boyd has been a leader, trainer and facilitator since 1989. He supports leaders and their teams to work together effectively, trustfully and with ease. This involves each and everyone – in their respective roles and as people. Tailor-made formats and genuine attention enable potential to unfold and synergies to emerge.

The graduate industrial engineer, managing director and former management consultant knows the requirements of his clients from many perspectives. He works systemically, strength- and solution-oriented. Leading international teams as well as work and academic programs in the USA and the UK enable him to always contribute the international perspective.

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