Leaders, Is Your Bully Unable or Just Unwilling to Behave At Work?

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Carmelita is the OR manager in a mid-size tertiary acute care medical center. She’s been in her role for 2 ½ years and knew going into the role that it was going to be rough. The previous manager resigned citing the “toxic work culture” as the reason. Carmelita was hired because of her experience and success in addressing disruptive behaviors of her staff and the physicians in her previous role as OR manager in a similar organization.

Although it was a rough start, Carmelita has managed to address the majority of dysfunction among the employees and has actually turned things around.


Carmelita has a charge nurse, Erin, whom she still struggles with and for whatever reason; Carmelita is stumped and doesn’t know what to do.

Erin has been in the team lead role for almost four (4) years and is an extremely competent OR nurse; hence why the previous manager made her team lead. However, Erin is like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. When she’s Jekyll, she keeps the department running smoothly, helps her team problem solve, and manages the flow of patients in and out of the OR.

However, every now and then Mr. Hyde appears. On these days, Carmelita has employees in her office crying. Erin is known for her sharp tongue, vicious criticism, and blatant cruelty.

Carmelita has counseled Erin so many times about her behavior, that it’s almost become a standing meeting between the two. It got to the point where Erin would actually tattle on herself before her coworkers did. Carmelita would counsel her, Erin would promise to do better…and would for a period of time, and then the dance would begin again.

Bad behavior – counsel – promise – good behavior…bad behavior – counsel – promise – good behavior

Does this sound familiar to you?

I bet it does. Many leaders deal with employees like Erin who misbehave at times, they counsel them over and over again and the employee admits and promises to do better, yet before you know it, they’re misbehaving again.

How do you handle this type of employee?

Carmelita (not her real name) is a leader in my virtual course, Bullying  & Incivility: Essential Skills for Healthcare Leaders. Each student receives a coaching call with me. During my call with Carmelita, she asked for my help with “the Erin” situation.

I first asked her how many conversations she’s had with Erin about her behavior.

Carmelita wasn’t sure but after 2 ½ years, thought she had met with Erin at least 20 times.

I then asked if she had ever seen Erin behave professionally in a consistent manner with anyone in the department.

Carmelita immediately shared that Erin always treats the surgeons well.

No matter what, I asked.

Yes. No matter what.

It was crystal clear to me what was happening here.

Erin was capable of behaving in a professional manner (treated physicians well) but she was not willing.

If you have an employee like Erin, you have to stop and ask yourself – Is this employee capable of adapting his or her behavior? Or are they just not willing?

In Laura Crawshaw’s book, Taming the Abrasive Manager: How to End Unnecessary Roughness in the Workplace, she explains this so well by helping leaders categorize employees through a lens of awareness, ability, and willingness.

According to Laura, employees who misbehave fall into these four (4) categories:

Category #1:  Won’t see their abrasive impact and therefore can’t change (unable)

These are the employees who have no sense of self-awareness. You can show them a video of them behaving badly and they will STILL deny they’ve done anything wrong. Humans can’t change their behavior if they don’t recognize it.

Category #2:  Will see their abrasive impact, but won’t care enough to change (unwilling)

These are the employees who tend to say things like, “Well that’s just my personality…” They KNOW how they come across but do not take any responsibility.

Category #3:  Will see their abrasive impact and will care enough to change and will succeed (willing and able)

These are the employees that once you have an honest conversation with them about their behavior, they sincerely WANT to change and perhaps through coaching by you or on their own, are ABLE to change (love these employees!!).

Category #4:  Will see their abrasive impact and care enough to change, and will fail (willing and unable).

These are probably some of the toughest types of employees to work with. Their intent is good and pure. They know they can misbehave and really want to change but may not have the ability to do so. I’m not sure you can help these employees (may need professional help).

Once you’ve evaluated an employee based on these categories, then the way you handle them become clearer.

Category #1:  For employees who won’t see their abrasive impact and therefore can’t change (unable):

Engage in honest conversations with them about behavior using clear observations, including impact and set clear expectations for behavior. If they continue to behave after you’ve done this, performance manages them out (therapeutically extract).

Category #2:  For employees who see their abrasive impact, but won’t care enough to change (unwilling)

Set very clear behavioral expectations and tell them what the consequences are if they choose to continue violating those expectations (ask HR to be with you when you have this conversation). Give them a final warning. When they misbehave again (and they will), terminate them.

Category #3:  For employees who see their abrasive impact and will care enough to change and will succeed (willing and able).

Work with them. Coach them. Meet frequently with them. You want to KEEP THEM! They are worth your time.

Category #4:  For the employees who see their abrasive impact and care enough to change, and will fail (willing and unable).

 Set clear expectations, recommend professional counseling (perhaps through EAP or some other program), and be willing to therapeutically extract them if their behavior continues to disrupt the workplace. You can’t allow someone to continue to disrupt the workplace just because they want to change (not safe for patients).

In Erin’s case, she was clearly capable because Carmelita observed her behaving professionally consistently with the surgeons. So, Erin fell into category #2. She was capable (treated surgeons professionally) but wasn’t willing.

When Carmelita realized this, it was like a light bulb went off in her head. Erin was “playing” her – no doubt.

My advice to Carmelita was to have one last honest conversation with Erin. Set very clear expectations for behavior, and give her a final warning. Oh, I also advised her to meet with her boss and her Human Resource Representative BEFORE she had this conversation with her.

A month or so later, I heard back from Carmelita. She and her HR business partner met with Erin one last time. Carmelita set very clear behavioral expectations and let Erin know that this was her “final written warning”. Two weeks later, Erin was in Carmelita’s office. This time it was to put in her resignation. Erin misbehaved again and knew she would be terminated if Carmelita found out, so she quit.

Hey. Whatever it takes…right?

Here’s the deal. If you find yourself with an employee with whom your behavioral counseling sessions are becoming like a routine coffee chat with a friend or an “on the couch” therapy session, at some point, you have to view them from a different lens – are they capable of adapting their behavior (yes or no) and are they willing (yes or no).

As Jim Collins said, ‘‘the key to success is to get the right people on the bus and get the wrong people off the bus. Then, put the right people in the right seats on the bus.’’

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4 thoughts on “Leaders, Is Your Bully Unable or Just Unwilling to Behave At Work?”

    1. Renee Thompson

      When both HR and the leadership team turn a blind eye to a problem, it helps to hit them with data – hard facts and how someone’s behavior impacts patient safety, the strategic goals of the organization or bottom line (finances) – like retention. It’s much harder for them to ignore when they’re staring at numbers.

  1. Disruptive staff have often ‘got away with it’ for years. You even hear their (harassed) peers say, ‘S/he’s too valuable to lose!’. I’m really hopeful that managers will WAKE UP and realise no one is that valuable: If they are, you need to mentor healthier staff in to that role. My experience is that bullies hoard, instead of share, information and skills because they rely on being the ‘hero’. That way, their poor behaviour is overlooked. Love how Renee gives concrete advice and help.

    1. Renee Thompson

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. You couldn’t be more right. We justify and rationalize toxic behavior because of how “good” an employee is. I understand it but we need to hold EVERYONE accountable for professional behavior and be willing to therapeutically extract someone if they display deviant behaviors.

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