What do you do when someone throws a fit or yells at an annoying customer or repeatedly shows up to work late or maybe not at all for a few days?

Hint: Don’t address the behavior.

Where Bad Behavior Comes From

Bad behavior often comes from a desire to remedy bad feelings, which itself is rooted in the misunderstanding that bad feelings come from something outside of us, like a crappy customer, an angry boss, ridiculous deadlines, or something else. When we have that (innocent) misunderstanding, we often feel like we need to do something to make that bad feeling go away.

In the same way that many of us use alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, or cookies as an antidote to make some of those bad feelings go away, some people act out. It’s that simple. And as long as that bad behavior isn’t really endangering anyone, to deny someone who’s in pain their own special antidote is just kind of cruel.

When people think their experience is crap because of a crappy situation, it’s important to remind them that a) they’re feeling the power of thought in the moment; b) the design of the system includes a natural ebb-and-flow, which we’re not in control of. So, for either us or them, trying to fix a bad mood is trying to fix something that’s not broken in the first place.

Often people act out just because they want to be heard, nothing else. We usually need to fix neither their bad behavior nor what they’re seemingly upset about. Listening — without affirming or denying their opinion — will often do the trick.

Fixing Behavior with Rules or Codes of Conduct

If we think that having more rules will prevent bad behavior, then we too have bought into the misunderstanding. More rules are just more thoughts to swirl around in our heads, which will never lead to a clear mind, which will not lead to better behavior — often worse. The same goes for punishment. There is absolutely no causation between punishment and better behavior or performance. Good behavior stems from good state of mind, period.

Finding the Root Cause

Should we dig in and analyze the behavior and try to figure out the root cause? Perhaps dig into people’s pasts, and try to figure out “what’s really wrong”, speak of chemical imbalances, or assign labels? Nope, this only creates more thought which in turn usually creates more issues.

Horrible Behavior Can Easily Resolve Itself: An Example

Here’s an example from when I owned a software consulting firm. One day, as I was walking out the door to head to a pitch, one of our developers threw a complete fit. He’d been working for months on a project which admittedly was going anything but smoothly. It was a project that would try the patience of nearly anyone.

As I was approaching the door, I saw him stand up, punch his desk, and start cursing as if someone had wound up a demonic doll. “I’m so f’ing tired of this f’ing sh’t. This project sucks. This client sucks. This job sucks. I f’ing quit.” He grabbed a giant trash bag and just started throwing the contents of his desk into it. Handfuls of CDs at a time, books, picture frames, post-its and just about everything else on his desk — straight into the trash bag. The entire office was staring at him.

I really wanted to leave to head to my meeting. But I walked over to his desk, and in my calmest of calm ways, said, “Hey man, I get it. This project does suck. I totally get why you’d want to quit. And if you really do want to quit, that’s totally cool. I’ll give you severance and an amazing reference and whatever else you need, I promise. If you want to quit, it’s fine, but please, just don’t do it this way.”

And as quickly as the storm arrived, it blew over. He said, “Hmm. Yeah, you’re right.” He began to take everything out of the trash bag, piece by piece, and put it back on his desk.

That’s really the end of the story. We never had a discussion about his frustration, his behavior, or his desire to quit. The pain-in-the-butt project was completed successfully. He never had another similar outburst; in fact, his behavior generally tended to the other direction. Stuff seemed to “roll off” more easily and he got less frustrated and in general, more productive. And, he was instrumental in helping to keep the company together when we almost went out of business.

Horrible Behavior Can Easily Resolve Itself: Another Example

At a colleague’s company, there was a developer who had been pissed off for weeks. He was incredibly grumpy and cantankerous. His work performance was poor. He was really pissed off! My colleague sat him down, asked “what’s up” and let him talk for 45 minutes. Problem solved. His mood, behavior and performance drastically improved.

What You Can Do

As you may know by now if you’ve read much of my stuff, I’m not really into providing tips and tricks. But, here’s one, for how to reduce the incidence of bad behavior in the first place and how to “deal” with it when it comes up: Listen more, love more, think less, worry less and know that everything “fixes” itself (even though it wasn’t broken to begin with).