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ATD Blog

How to Talk to a Workplace Troublemaker

Wednesday, July 13, 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.

I appreciate the advice I once received. When someone in your life is frustrating, you always (and only) have three choices:

1) Accept it
2) Change it
3) Leave it

Let’s focus on choice for the days when choices one and three are impossible. Though you may want to change someone else, the best way to influence others is to focus on yourself. You can start with these tips.

Master Your Story

Stories are the conclusions, assumptions, and judgments that follow our observations. We often treat 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 the other 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 right.”

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.” 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 what they did. And the why behind the behavior is rarely as simple as we think it is.

The irony is that 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 one thing, usually ignorance, disrespect, motivation, or some other supposed intellectual or moral shortcoming.

You can challenge these limiting stories by asking yourself, “Why might I have done what they did in this situation?” or “What else might be contributing to their behavior that I’m not seeing?”

Look for Sources of Influence

As you try to understand what might be contributing to your peer’s bad behavior, consider these possible factors:

  • Are they motivated to change?
  • Do they have the skills and knowledge to change?
  • Are others modeling the bad behavior or suggesting it’s “normal” or “ok?”
  • Are there incentives to the bad behavior?
  • Do they have the tools to adopt the desired behavior?
  • 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.

You may be able to answer some of these questions 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 and you may get excuses. It’s up to you to determine whether a response is valid or not. 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 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 go unresolved and may even get worse. In your case, be sure to 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 on this, read up in Chapter 3 of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.

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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