How to Handle Ridiculous Employee Behavior

By Laura Gallaher, PhD, LHEP™

You’re a brand-new leader, and suddenly you’re the one who is expected to deal with employee behavior – whether that is conduct or performance – it’s now your job to manage them. And you’re a high performer. That’s part of why you’re in a position of leadership now.


You look around at the behavior of the people on your team – mostly fine probably, and then there are some employees who make the craziest choices.


“I can’t believe I have to tell somebody that it’s not ok to say “shut up” to a coworker!” You think to yourself.


(Or take a nap in the break room during lunch break, or don’t come back to work if you have a beer at lunch – all real things I’ve heard leaders be incredulous about – insert your own moment of “WTF” here.)


“Are they serious right now? This is just common sense people, come on!”


Now, perhaps you know enough to not say that out loud to them (or maybe you do say it loud because seriously – it’s just so obvious, and well – you’re so stunned, and then pretty immediately annoyed).


But this mindset and this feeling impact how you show up as a leader. So – what if you let go of the idea of common sense?


Talking about your own beliefs as though they are “common sense” is dangerous for a leader. It basically means that I’m suggesting that you should (not a great word to use, btw) know, believe and align with everything I believe for myself without actually communicating it.


Which basically asserts that you should be able to read my mind. It makes so many assumptions about your beliefs and your experiences – it basically assumes they’re just like mine. And it is surprisingly common for us to believe that others are more like us than they really are.

The False-Consensus Effect

It’s called the false-consensus effect, and you can read more about it from psychology blogger Kendra Cherry, and it affects all of us. In many ways, we are actually all motivated to believe that others are like us.


So, here’s the good news – when it comes to the false-consensus effect – most people are like you! They also overestimate how much people are similar to them or agree with their opinions!


Ok, I kid a bit. Remember – I’m a part of this too. I regularly find myself surprised when others have a different opinion than me. I remember the utter shock I felt at the results of the 2016 presidential election. One of my best friends woke up to all the posts on Facebook and actually believed there was some kind of elaborate prank happening – because that felt more likely to her than the winner actually winning the race.


My goal is not to go political to talk politics – but I hope this example prompts you to find your own “Wait – what?” moment.

Common sense must be “common” before it is “common sense”

What exactly does common sense mean, anyway? Let’s break this down…common – meaning shared, mutual, usual. In an organization, if you’re not actively communicating about, hiring and firing around “common” beliefs – then why would you expect that they’re common?


Let me give you an example of how “common” sense is often anything but common.


In my 7-week series, Leading a Grounded Life, one of the participants, “Sam,” shared a story that happened to trigger him. He shared that an out-of-town family member called him up to inform him that they would be in town the next day, and were looking forward to staying with him. And that was all the notice the family member gave. Sam was stressed out by this, as he found himself struggling to rearrange his schedule, clean his home, and prepare for these unexpected visitors. He shared that he really would prefer that he have more notice when people want to come visit. Another participant in the workshop, let’s call him Ned, was shocked by the family member’s behavior. “You have to coordinate with people before you just stop in, I mean that’s just common sense!”


This is the moment to pause….


I interrupted the conversation and said, “Let’s take a moment to challenge this idea about ‘common sense.’  How many of you would say that in your world, or your family it is ‘common sense’ that family is always welcome, doors open, without an invitation?”


About half the class raised their hands.


Yeah… false consensus means… no consensus.


And I have heard that before. It’s not necessarily “common sense” in my family, but I know plenty of people for whom giving notice, coordinating, waiting for an invitation…. all those concepts are foreign when it comes to family.


So, who is to say what is actually “common sense”?


Allow me to build on that with an organizational example.

Common sense implies judgement.

Let’s say an employee, John is napping in the break room during their lunch break. This is unpaid time, so it’s not company time. A leader witnesses this behavior feels shocked and angry, and says, “Don’t sleep at the office, that’s just ‘common sense!’”


Is it though? Let’s break that down for a minute.


So first of all, this leader is judging John. Judging him to be lazy, stupid, stubborn, crazy – whatever label or adjective feels right to that leader in that moment. Judgment serves only to divide. As humans, we only judge other humans to help us feel better about ourselves. And the person being judged probably won’t feel good about him/herself in the face of judgment, but that person also won’t feel good about the judger.


So, what has just happened to trust in this relationship?


If John feels a leader is judging him, that will probably incite fear in her and she will work to avoid that judgment. This might mean that John responds with defensiveness at the moment, she doesn’t internalize what the leader is saying to her, and so instead of actually changing her behavior, she just works harder to hide it. So now, this leader has an employee who is just better at concealing the behavior the leader doesn’t want.

Let go of the judgment, because it isn’t serving anybody

The first step here is to let go of your judgment because it isn’t serving anybody. Let me explain how I was able to let go of judgment, at least for the most part, most of the time.

I still enjoy being “right” but it was even more important to me when I was younger. In my younger days, this often meant that I would hold rigidly to ideas….I knew what was “right” and “wrong” – very “black and white.” But the more rigid I was, the more foolish I felt if there was then any evidence to suggest that my opinion or assertion was “wrong.” *Gulp*

One of my coping strategies, to avoid being “wrong” was to start to introduce the possibility that the way I saw a situation, or the world, wasn’t totally and completely “right.”

I would say things like, “Well, that’s how I understand the situation.” Or “Well that’s what I see to be true in this case.” And then, a couple beautiful things happened as a result.

For one – I became a lot more likable. I stopped coming across like a “know-it-all,” or somebody who was so rigid in her thinking that there was no point in conversation (yuck, right? I didn’t want to be that person…). Secondly, when somebody would raise a point that was counter to my perspective, it was SO MUCH EASIER for me to say, “Oh, yeah, I could see that,” or “That’s a good point!” All because I wasn’t rigidly clinging to my ideas being “right”.

So in the case of “common sense” – let’s kill a couple examples:
• “Common sense:” Don’t drink and then come to work
o Kill it: What about tech offices that do “Whiskey Wednesdays” or have a smart-phone operated beer keg, or what about in Italy, where wine with lunch is completely normal, before doing more work in the afternoon?
• “Common sense:” Don’t walk inside somebody’s home with your shoes on
o Kill it: This is not likely “common sense” in this country, but as somebody who used to live with an Asian man, I can tell you, it’s completely “common sense” in that culture!

You get the idea.


So here’s my last point, and this is the good news….

You’re still allowed to set expectations and create “common sense”

If you’re thinking “Wait a second…just because some tech companies are cool with their employees drinking at work, I have to be ok with my employees coming back from lunch drunk?”

NOO!! Not at all!!

As a CEO or a company or a leader of a team, it is completely ok, and in fact, I encourage you to set clear expectations for what IS and is NOT ok in YOUR organization.

The balance here is setting a clear expectation without judging somebody just because they might have different beliefs about what is ok or not ok.

So, if you don’t want your employees to nap in the break room, even though it is their own time (vs. paid time) – then set that expectation! And employees can then consciously choose if they are ok with that expectation or not (i.e., do they still choose to work here or not). This is all part of what makes up a clear sense of culture or “how we do things around here.”

But you don’t have to judge them just because you might have different ideas about what is ok and not ok, especially before you have openly communicated about it.

Summary: Before you start to assert that things are “common sense” in your company – check yourself to make sure that you have communicated clearly and repeatedly about the expectations of what is ok and not ok. Check for understanding from your employees – do they understand what you’re saying? Do they agree to meet those expectations?


Sweet! You have just created common sense in your company. Well done.

All humans judge sometimes. Don’t beat yourself up for it…just notice when it happens, then let the judgment fall away and have an open conversation about your expectations.

Without the judgment, employees will be far more receptive to hearing you without inciting the worst culture-killer of them all: fear.

Be well and communicate openly!

What do you think?

I would love to hear any resistance you notice to this – remember, I don’t like to try to claim being “absolutely right” about anything – any thoughts on “in defense of common sense” or the most outrageous obvious thing that surely would be considered common sense? Comment below and tell me what you think!

Also published on Medium.

  • BS Banks

    I found myself diverging from your points at the beginning of this blog. But, by the end, I was back with you. Well defined expectations are key in any work environment. Once they are well defined, communicated and understood you can call them “common sense” for the org.

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