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How to Address Repeated Bad Behavior

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The issues that keep people up at night are rarely the one-time follies of their employees, peers, and family members. It’s the patterns of behavior that never seem to get better.

When something in life is painful or frustrating, we’re typically told that we have three choices:

  • Accept it.
  • Change it.
  • Leave it.

But when these choices aren’t options, what’s the best path forward to change the situation? Start with yourself.

The best way to influence others is to focus on yourself. If you fail to embrace this principle, the tips here will come across as tactics with a shallow motive and are likely to fail.

Master Your Story

Stories are the conclusions, assumptions, and judgments that follow our observations. We often hold on to them as though they are facts, but they aren’t.

When it comes to poor behavior, we often first tell ourselves a story about what another person did. This prevents us from having effective conversations. You might be thinking, “But Justin, my stories about this person are true. I have evidence that my judgments are correct.”

Remember this: If your story is wrong about a situation, you have no right to get angry; if your story is correct about a situation, you have no reason to get angry. Therefore, there’s no need to get angry or upset. Getting upset in response to someone letting you down undermines your credibility and your ability to influence them.


The second story we often tell ourselves relates to why someone did something. The answer is rarely as simple as we think it is.

When we make mistakes, we are quick to offer numerous reasons for our behavior. But when others make mistakes or behave badly, we often attribute it to ignorance, disrespect, motivation, or another supposed intellectual or moral shortcoming.

You can challenge these limiting stories by asking yourself why you might have done what they did in this situation, or what else might be contributing to their behavior that you’re not seeing.

Look for Sources of Influence

As you try to understand what might be contributing to your peer’s bad behavior, and if you can influence them to change, consider these possible factors:

  • Are they motivated to change?
  • Do they have the skills and knowledge to change?
  • Are there incentives for the bad behavior?
  • Do they have the tools to adopt new behaviors?
  • Are policies and processes making it difficult to change?

Asking these questions is not about looking for excuses. Like a doctor, you’re trying to diagnose by identifying personal, social, and environmental factors that may be contributing to their behavior.

You may be able to answer some of these question on your own, while others may require a conversation. As you raise these questions with the other person, suspend judgment and listen. Seek to understand, not accuse.

As you diagnose, you may uncover reasons, but you may also get excuses. It’s up to you to determine whether a response is valid. If you get excuses, make that the topic of conversation. Maybe the problem is less about the bad behavior and more about an inability to have a meaningful conversation about it.

Have the Right Conversation

People often discuss surface-level issues because it is easier to do so. But just because you’re talking doesn’t mean that you’re solving the problem.

Usually, we find that beneath the surface of persistent problems lies a host of unresolved issues. If we’re not talking about the right issue or the root of the issue, the problem will remain unresolved and may even get worse. Discuss the pattern of behavior and not just the most recent episode that frustrates you. If discussing the pattern gets you nowhere, you may then want to address the relationship. For more tips, read chapter 3 of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and Emily Gregory.

About the Author

Justin is a speaker and training designer for Crucial Learning with expertise in organizational communication, conflict management, and personal effectiveness.

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