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Disrupting disruptive relationships

Disruptive employees and bosses can make the office a stressful place, but Marlene Chism offers strategies to disrupt the disrupters.

5 min read



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According to Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, employees in the United States spend approximately 2.8 hours engaged in conflict, which equals a full day of productivity each month. Conflict itself isn’t necessarily a problem. The real problem is what mismanaged conflict does to relationships. Most workers have experienced the tension of working with a disruptive top performer, a disorderly peer or a disagreeable boss. This post explores three common relationship conflicts and how to get resolution.  

Disruptive top performer

Marlene Chism

The rain maker is a bully, but their performance is stellar. The top salesman berates team members, and the neurosurgeon screams at the nurses. When a top performer is disruptive, it’s often justified because they’ve been over-valued for certain qualities. What’s undervalued and unnoticed is the reality of high turnover retention issues, and the ongoing effects of a toxic work culture.  

The real problem is that behavior is not considered a part of performance, therefore it’s justified instead of corrected. The behavior allowed then becomes the standard. 

What to do: Make behavior part of performance
Make behavior part of performance. If a high performer can’t get along with the team, that’s a performance issue. If three people quit because of someone’s temper, that’s a performance issue. Behavior is part of performance. This cultural shift won’t happen without top leaders making a tough decision that’s written into policy. Once the announcement has been made to the entire organization it’s important to initiate a difficult conversation with employees who have behavioral issues. Beware: This kind of conversation takes some strategy to communicate effectively. It’s not fair to totally blame the disruptors for doing what works, after all, on some level the behavior has been allowed.

Disorderly peer

Being a member of a disagreeable or disorderly peer group where one or two equals are in conflict creates one of most unpleasant professional experiences. Think board of directors, investors, business masterminds and the like. When everyone considers themselves a leader it’s extremely difficult knowing what to do when there’s an aggressive, argumentative or strong personality who makes life miserable for the group.  

The real problem is a lack of leadership clarity. Since everyone sees themselves as a leader, they take for granted the need to agree on expectations from the beginning. 

What to Do: Define the purpose of the group
Before you start a group, define the purpose of the group. Getting crystal clear about the purpose of the group makes it easy to course-correct sooner rather than later.  Sometimes group conflict arises due to the group dynamics of forming, storming, norming and performing. At other times there’s a lack of connection, or too many diverse opinions about the purpose of the group. The best time to define the purpose is at the beginning. The second-best time is when you find yourself feeling disturbed at the direction of the conversations.

Disagreeable boss

Unsupportive bosses range from aloof, disengaged, micromanaging or stubbornly set in their ways. In the book From Conflict to Courage there’s a story of a son fresh out of college wanting to help his temperamental father increase profits in the family business, but his father the business owner consistently displayed violent outbursts blaming his son, anytime he became overwhelmed. While the command-and-control leadership is dramatically fading, it’s still alive and well in some industries, and in many family-owned businesses of all types and sizes. 

The real problem is twofold: a lack of clarity and a lack of personal boundaries. When the conversation is about turf wars, or about who’s right and who’s wrong, the focus is on the distraction instead of the intended outcome. 

What to Do: Set boundaries
If you’re working with someone (family member or not) who has trouble mastering their energy, you have a decision to make. Decide you will no longer be available as a door mat. You deserve better. Set a boundary. What will you no longer tolerate? What kind of behavior or resolution will you ask for? Setting boundaries is difficult especially when the other person has more authority or power than you. 

If you lead an organization where there’s unwanted turnover in a particular department, look first at the manager’s disposition and behavior. If a leader or manager is worth saving, get them the support they need to shift behavior.   

Where there’s unresolved conflict, there’s also dysfunctional relationships. Where there’s dysfunctional relationships there’s unwanted outcomes.  With the right support and tools, conflict offers an opportunity to increase communication, clarity and connection.  


Marlene Chism is a consultant, speaker, and the author of   From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedInor at

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