Lean Consulting and Training Organizational Development Specialists


Disruptive Team Behavior

We received the following question:
My name is [omitted] and I am a crew leader at a construction company. The company brought in a trainer earlier this year to help us streamline and reduce cost. The trainer had some really good ideas. She also worked on team building with us which was, and still is, a problem. She worked with my crew of 9 hourly laborers and myself 8 hours a week for one month. I was told to sit through the training but to avoid playing a leadership role during the training. The goal was to learn how to streamline but to also get our crew to work as a team.

From day one, one member of the team was resistant and disruptive. He gave the trainer a very rough time. During the first few meetings this person would sit with his arms folded shaking his head and rolling his eyes. Now and then he would also make sarcastic remarks. I could see that the rest of the crew was willing to learn and accept the new ideas but they participated very little because the resistant crew member made the training sessions so tense. I spoke with my direct supervisor and he said I still needed to stand back and let the crew and the trainer work it out. It honestly felt less like training and more like a battle of wills between the trainer and our disruptive team member.  

I found a page on your website that mentions the 5 dysfunctions of a team1. Interesting because our trainer actually covered that topic and yes all 5 dysfunctions are still alive and kicking in our crew. One thing I should mention is that this is not a gender issue. We have a good balance of male and female in my crew. We are also proud of the fact that we have a greater percentage of females in management positions compared to most construction companies. So, gender can be ruled out as a problem. This negative crew member was called out a few times by the trainer. Other crew members slowly started to speak up and agree with our trainer.

One day she actually had us vote. By a show of hands how many feel this training is worthwhile and how many would like to learn more? All hands went up but one. Guess who. She then asked, who thinks this training is a waste of time? One hand went up. She then went back to the training session but the disruptive behavior worsened. For the next 30 minutes he was more sarcastic than ever and LOUD! At that point the trainer stopped speaking and stood silent for about 15 seconds looking directly at our "problem member". She then announced that we were going to play a game. She asked if we had ever seen the show "Survivor", big reality show. She then asked if the crew wanted to vote someone off the island! And who would it be. It was unanimous! Everyone in the room other than myself, the trainer, and the difficult team member automatically pointed directly at our disruptive team member. He walked out of the session and never returned to work! I'm not afraid to say that I'm happy about him leaving but I am unhappy about wasting nearly 25% of that one month training session.

I know this is quite a lengthy email but what do you think I should do differently if I am in a similar situation again? Sorry for the lengthy story and I thank you in advance for offering suggestions.

Anonymous Submission 2005 : Posted with consent

Ineffective Team Training

Your situation really isn't out of the ordinary. In fact, in nearly all team environments, it is common to find among the ranks at least one naysayer. Then again it is also just as common to find that people are willing and motivated to learn. This is especially true if people are learning something that improves the quality of their work life. Apparently, this is a fair representation of the situation you described; but I am not so sure that the consultant handled the situation appropriately. While planning a project, we also plan for a negative response from at least a few of the trainees.

Any training that involves a team, which most projects do, requires that a consultant or trainer does three very critical things at the onset of training.

  1. Show why the training is needed and how it will benefit the trainees
  2. Get everyone on board
  3. Establish a true "team environment" in which everyone is excited about working together, learning together, and teaching others to apply what they have learned.

This is not always easy but absolutely can be accomplished. BUT, it must be done immediately. You cannot introduce a topic, begin training, and hope that all training participants are fired up and ready to learn. Items 2 and 3 listed above vary in complexity from project to project and can also vary throughout the stages of a training program. This requires that a consultant and/or trainer has the ability to 'get a feel' of the basic attitude of the audience and to quickly determine effective tactics for addressing and building upon these three critical elements of any training program. Despite expertise ,and working knowledge of a topic, a training program can still be a flop if the trainer does not understand how to motivate learners. Often it is only a matter of motivating learners, helping them feel confident in their ability to learn the material, and explaining the relevance of the training. However, occasionally we encounter a team member that is plain and simply negative, disruptive, and determined to ruin the experience for the trainer and all trainees. If that is the case a different approach is required.

Where I feel your trainer fell short is the fact that the behavior, even though unpleasant, was allowed to continue. You cannot go from tolerance to zero tolerance and expect desired results. Disruptive behavior must be addressed immediately. As you discovered in your situation the entire team, other than one member, was ready and willing to learn. There are ways to calmly and effectively correct disruptive behavior. Pushing a member out of a team or terminating him/her should be a last resort. As trainers our goal is to change that behavior. I do not feel your trainer handled this situation professionally. It is not professional to single anyone out or to encourage an "us against them" attitude. A team member should first be given the opportunity to change their behavior. If done properly the team itself will monitor behavior and challenge one another to be active and productive in the training experience. If a disruptive member realizes that the team will not tolerate such behavior the resistant team member will usually quiet down and eventually buy in to the training program. The fact is, every consulting and/or training project is different. Therefore, trainers must be viewed as likeable yet demanding; task oriented yet understanding of human behavior; and most of all, able to adjust to the training environment minute by minute.

It is possible that your trainer is inexperienced and has not developed these skills yet. Then again, some trainers never develop these skills. Because of confidentiality issues, trainers are often not at liberty to provide a detailed portfolio so it can be difficult to determine how experienced or successful he/she is. However, for future projects you may want to explain to the trainer the three immediate goals I listed above. When trying to select a trainer or consultant don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask each of the training candidates how they address each of those three critical elements of training. These steps absolutely must be addressed immediately and monitored throughout the entire training project. As a result of the experience you described you may have lost a very valuable team member. In addition to the cost of the training your company also invested money in recruiting and training a replacement.

I am also compelled to address a comment you made. I have pointed out flaws in the trainer's approach but the trainer is not entirely to blame. You stated that you were to some extent happy when the disruptive team member quit. Our job as leaders is not only to achieve company goals but to develop each and every employee and help them become successful. This is a difficult challenge and from time to time employees will leave an organization; but anytime an individual leaves an organization or fails to succeed under our guidance we have failed as a leader. I encourage you to consider that simply because we are responsible for the success of all team members. It is not my intent to criticize your overall leadership abilities, but it is important that we see every lost employee as a lost opportunity. Now would be a time to reflect. Is there anything you could have done to avoid losing a team member? There are no perfect leaders but we should use these experiences as learning tools.

Good luck on future projects and thanks for the question.

Lencioni, P., (2002), The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass Publishing

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