How do I Deal with a Disruptive Team Member?


Irritated by a disruptive employee? Below Gwenllian Williams offers advice on how to deal with a team member that undermines your leadership and distracts co-workers, with managing and coaching tips to prevent similar situations arising in the future.

Having a “problem person” on your team isn’t particularly pleasant, but rest assured you’re dealing with an issue that affects every team leader in every call centre at some point in their career.

In one call centre I worked with, a team leader became so demoralised by the attitude of a disruptive team member she cried before team meetings. She felt fearful of the team member and humiliated by the fact that the team saw her failing to manage the issue.

A wise man once told me: “trouble walks into a team on two legs”, and how right he was.

Typical behaviours of disruptive team members include:

  • Creating cliques and stirring up trouble amoung the staff.
  • Undermining the team leader behind their back while playing innocent
  • Being constantly negative – especially about change – and infecting the team with dissatisfaction and resentment
  • Not working as hard and expecting others to pick up the slack
  • Arriving back persistently late from breaks
  • Taking excessive leave through the camouflage of sickness leave

Team leaders often try to avoid these issues for fear of creating more dispute. But ignoring a situation is a watertight guarantee for making things worse.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Early intervention and consistent management towards acceptable team behaviour will get results.

No one is saying it will be a pleasant phase in leading a team. Disruptive people who find their bad behaviour disrupted often get worse before they get better.

Analyse the situation

So, what can you do? The first step is to be clear about the issue and the changes you want to see. Use the following questions to analyse the situation:

  • What team behaviours do you expect to see in your team members – for instance, pulling together, respect, putting the customer first?
  • What are the positive behaviours you see in the disruptive team member? This question may seem counter-intuitive, but is essential to later stages.
  • What are the negative behaviours you’ve observed?
  • What is the effect on other team members?
  • What changes in behaviour are required?

Having completed your analysis, you’re now ready to address the issue. You may be so frustrated that your inclination is to go in hard and assert your position, but it’s best to start with a firm discussion and then escalate only if necessary.

Start planning your feedback

Set up a feedback session with your disruptive team member. Arrange for the meeting to be in a private room away from the team, with no interruptions. It’s important that you feel fully in control of the situation.

Preparation is essential for your confidence, your sense of control and reaching the conclusion you want. Prepare for the feedback session by setting aside some time for yourself and working through the following:

  • Your opening line. Make this a clear statement of why you have called the meeting and what you want to cover.
  • The positives that you see in the person. You may find it hard, but have two positive statements to make about the person.
  • The changes you want to see. Make these descriptive and positive. For example, use “talk to me about issues before you talk to the rest of the team” rather than “don’t wind up the team by moaning behind my back”.
  • Your responses to push back. Think of all the excuses and rebuttals you might get from the person and have a clear, positive statement to counteract them. For example, if faced with: “you are in meetings so I can’t discuss things with you”, respond with “I know, as team leader, I have to attend meetings, but I see everyone in the team every day. So I am asking you to wait a short while to speak to me before complaining to the rest of the team. Then we can sort things out positively”.

Accelerated change feedback

Having planned, you’re ready to run the meeting. Try to visualise a positive response from the disruptive person as this will help reduce the risk of conflict. It will mean you using positive language as much as possible in the meeting.

Essentially, you’ll be coaching the person into changing rather than criticising them into stopping a behaviour. Below is a list of things you may want to happen and the kind of phrases you can use to achieve those outcomes:

Desired outcome Appropriate phrase
State a positive about the person “There have been a number of changes in the call centre and you’re very good at identifying the problems caused by these changes.”
State how to be better “Next time there is a change, it would be better if you discussed it with me before the team. Then we can talk it through and agree on what is going to happen.”
State the benefit “By discussing the changes with me first, you’ll appear far more positive and your experience will be noticed. This will help the team and ensure that you and I work well together.”
Get agreement “Can we agree that, in future, you’ll come to me about any concerns before you mention them to the team?”

If all else fails, go for direct feedback

Most people respond well to this approach as it avoids them feeling criticised. However, there are always the awkward types who will continue to be uncooperative in their behaviour even after feedback. In these circumstances, you need to take a tougher stance. This will mean making a very clear statement of the issue and the change you require, such as indicated below:

Desired outcome Appropriate phrase
State the situation “I spoke to you two weeks ago and asked you to discuss your concerns with me before complaining to the team. Three times since then you have criticised my decisions to the team. I know this because team members have come to me with unfounded concerns having had a conversation with you.”
State the consequence “Complaining behind my back creates negativity in the team and creates a management problem for me.”
State the change “In future I expect you to discuss your concerns with me, as we agreed.”
Check understanding “Are you clear about what I want you to do?”
Get commitment “Are we agreed that you’ll come to me with concerns and not the team?”

Other things to remember

As a final aside, when you have a difficult team member, keep detailed records of any feedback meetings. A written record of meetings is a strength if the situation escalates.

Also, if you are facing persistent issues, bring in an HR heavyweight. They will advise you on managing the situation.

Finally, if you do get positive change and then find the person is reverting to old habits, address the issue immediately and firmly.

wenllian Williams

Gwenllian Williams is a director of deWinton-Williams Business Consulting Tel: +44 20 7372 4997 Website:

Author: Jonty Pearce

Published On: 7th Nov 2007 - Last modified: 19th Dec 2016
Read more about - Call Centre Management, ,

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  • Gwenllian,

    Your points on how to deal with this are valid.

    I tend to take a more direct approach.
    Consult with HR.
    One (1) warning.
    If the warning does not work, and the team member persists, fire that person on the spot.

    David G. Peterson, PMP 21 Oct at 14:58
  • Sometimes, the manager is the problem, not the employee. Leaders are actually the employee’s with the courage to think and act outside of the pack. Unless you’re the type of manager that targets to destroy leadership in your direct reports, a better approach then “firing on the spot” is to figure out how to harness that persons leadership potential and address the source of the discontent.

    Luis Rosado 28 Jul at 18:00
  • As a senior manager. It is very difficult when your next most senior person is disruptive/destructive. Initially it is self doubt. Is it me?

    I have just gone through that process and through careful due diligence slowly working through the whole team worked out just how destructive this individual has been. Narcissistic is best description. And it took me 9 months to work it out. Fixing it is quite hard now and because the person has messed with our culture DNA, I regret not having acted sooner on a very strong hunch.

    It is a mistake to think that all employees are working in the right environment for them. Not everyone should be “saved”. You may b doing a disservice to everyone.

    GranG 31 Jan at 16:01
  • I certainly agree with “Direct Approach.” These situations fester far too long in otherwise hard-working teams. A disruptive team member is like a bad apple in a bushel: it will spoil the entire team if it isn’t plucked out.

    I am speaking solely of truly disruptive behavior: not fulfilling commitments, monopolizing the agenda or attacking other members of the team. Less impactful behaviors (side talking in meetings, arriving late on occasion, etc.) can be dealt with less severely.

    As the team leader, you must be firm, direct and give the troublesome person no more than two chances to change the behavior, then OUT. If you don’t take action you risk losing other valuable members, the project’s integrity and/or reputation, and your own reputation as a leader.

    I was facilitating a team offsite recently and a disruptive member verbally attacked the leader and other team members several times during each of the days. Her behavior was so erratic and inappropriate that at the end of the offsite I recommended to the team leader and the company VPHR that she be required to get professional counseling and that they make it a condition of her employment.

    What I have seen far too often is team leaders and managers letting these kinds of situations go far too long before someone recognizes that the behavior is unacceptable and takes action. Often by then the apples in the bin are spoiled beyond all redemption.

    Sara Zeff Geber, Ph.D. 24 Jun at 22:16
  • I presume from the respnses most are in managerial positions. Having been in both position of employer and employee I have come to thr conclusion that successful working relations is a two way process and to maintain a professional framework and respecful working relatiomship requires A) a clear managerial structure in place B) Authority and respect is gained from knowing your employees not by brute force-after all your employees are your customers-you don’t own them-resprect their contribution-be aware of mitigating factors and take fair and proper steps to deal with any perceived inefficiencies C) Communicate long term goals-most employees will subscribe to a sense of belonging and shared responsibility.
    They will not take kindly to overbearing managers who would greatly benefit from looking in the mirror and adjusing their own perceptions of an uncomfortable situaion. LISTEN TO THE EMPLOYEE-HOWEVER DEMANDING. YOU MIGHT LEARN SOMETHING POSITIVE.

    Beth 20 Feb at 00:53