Peer pressure can get you past organizational ‘enemies’

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I’ve always been curious about an organizational phenomenon that seems almost universal in organizations — organizational “enemies.”

There seems to always be one in every team, department or organization. This is a person who is over the top, on the bubble, or simply just very difficult to work with. They are not yet a pariah, but they are the people we tend avoid unless necessary. Performance reviews don’t seem to work. They seem to have a Teflon coat or a political relationship with the boss.

Then when the inevitable happens — something that cannot be accepted by the organization’s norms — and the “enemy” is terminated, as if by a miracle, within a short time, another “enemy” appears. It’s almost as if the organization needs them in order to function. It seems like such a waste of energy and time. These “enemies” were hired for some reason, just like the rest of the workforce. There must be some reason why they are acting badly or dysfunctionally.

What is the value of needing to have “bad guys” around? Is it that we don’t have to look at the system that reinforces this behavior? Is it like the front page of the newspaper — there’s always bad news — they will always be with us? Or does it serve some other purpose like keeping the attention from others who are costing the organization more?

What is the cost? Typically “enemies” in a team, department, or organization are costing the organization plenty — time, energy or focus. Or there is negativity spread everywhere. Left unattended, it can become a cancer, bringing down morale among the best performers.

So what to do? There are the traditional approaches which include performance reviews, 360 evaluations with coaching, sending them to programs (“charm school”), shifting them to another position, or removing them from direct responsibility for people.

Here are three ways which reflect a more collaborative culture to building a shared ownership for the behavior and its change. These individuals were hired for a reason. Why are they behaving this way? There is still ultimate accountability, but it is the last step.

Team Accountability: Peer pressure is powerful. If the individual(s) is on a team and it has a set of operating agreements for how it will work with each other, this provides a framework for having them hold this individual accountable, rather than the manager.

Root Cause: Understand what is behind the behavior. Focus on the behavior and its causes rather than damning the person. There is always a reason why they are acting the way they are. Root cause allows both parties to deal with the truth.

Congruent Conversations: Sometimes the truth is that there is an even deeper concern that needs to be addressed — ethics or personal conduct — privately. A congruent conversation is a deep, engaging, direct, and truth-telling conversation that helps the individual see their impact on others and has them choose how they will behave going forward.

If none of these approaches works, the manager can always remove the person from the organization. But know that if there is a culture of having “enemies,” once that person is gone, another will appear. It’s a conscious choice we have to treat the problem member(s) of our workforce with respect, or as a transaction.

Edward M. Marshall is a senior partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. He can be reached at, or 919-265-9616.