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When Disturbed People Disturb Your Organization

Difficult people. Disturbed people.

One term is often used interchangeably with the other as if they were the same.

That perception couldn't be further from the truth. There are distinct differences between difficult and disturbed. By identifying the differences, you can determine the best action needed to temper and neutralize the impact they have on your organization.

The Difficult Employee
At its most benign, "difficult" describes conflicted interactions or behaviors attributed to differences in personality or style. Personality and style patterns are typically identified by using style assessment instruments, (i.e. variants of DISC or MBTI instruments or profiles). Style differences can also be attributed to variants in perspective from profession (engineering vs. marketing), span of control (regional vs. home office), or diversity (race, age, geography).

At the next level of intensity, stress, or emotional or health concerns can be causative factors. As a work environment becomes increasingly stressful, with limited resources or increased work demands, more and more people exhibit difficult behaviors at work.

As unpleasant as some of their behaviors might be, difficult people most often respond quickly - if unwillingly - to some variant of existing management process: either a reiteration of performance expectations, constructive feedback, a needs improvement plan, or a formal disciplinary program. They own their part in the process, often attributing their problems to their own limitations which are seen as overwhelming.

The Disturbed Employee
Disturbed employees aren't manifesting style differences or their own limitations, but rather a personality disorder, addiction or mental illness. They will not, or cannot, take responsibility for their own behavior.

Disturbed people blame anyone/everyone else for what they themselves cause. They attribute their problem to politics, other people, or external circumstances. No matter how strong the evidence is, they don't see their role in causing the problems.

When you try to hold a disturbed person accountable, you'll hear, "He had it in for me. The organization doesn't appreciate all I've done. I know what's really going on here. She's are trying to blame me again."

Disturbed people often work a double standard, accusing others of the same unethical, illegal, or technically inappropriate actions they themselves are doing.

One senior scientist repeatedly accused another of bad science and unethical behavior, while making similar if not worse errors in his own practice. Not only did he destroy his colleague's technical notes, he attributed inaccurate information to him, and then when called on it, denied he had done anything wrong.

Sometimes a disturbed person's addiction or medical condition makes it impossible for them to function effectively.

An experienced, 30 year veteran manager returned to work after a very short mental health leave saying he couldn't abandon his staff. His significant clinical depression had been worsening for at least two years before he took leave. In the first six weeks back at work, alternately skipping his medication or overdosing on it, he spent most of his time crying in his office or describing his sense of personal failure to whichever of his employees he could buttonhole. He'd been unable to make any positive contribution to the company in at least three years and was too young to retire.

Impact on the Organization
Difficult people impact individuals, making the workplace unpleasant for colleagues or co-workers. Some people find them very disruptive or unpleasant, others dismiss them or aren't bothered. Coaching for problem solving, managing differences, or even diversity training can go a long way towards resolving the upset when an employee's behavior is difficult.

If the conflict reaches management attention, standard management practices - along with holding employees accountable for changing their behavior - can be enough to get both parties back on track.

While difficult people can annoy or frustrate co-workers, disturbed employees can bring down a whole organization, holding its effectiveness and profitability hostage to their idiosyncratic behavior, ethics and/or influence.

When a senior manager is disturbed, the best employees in the organization will quickly find work elsewhere. Paradoxically, lower performing employees may elect to participate in "warm chair" attrition, staying in the position but not performing to expectations or former levels of effectiveness. (Warm chair attrition is becoming increasingly common in today's economy when fewer opportunities exist for finding a comparable position if an employee decides to quit.)

Disturbed managers can foster a culture of inappropriate behavior and/or business practices, opening the way to wrongful termination suits and even criminal proceedings. I have been called in to deal with situations where the disturbed employee became inappropriately familiar with junior staff members, was vindictive to others in the department, disregarded HR policies, established sweetheart deals with favored customers, managed by humiliation and scorn, and generally created havoc in every area they touched.

And these weren't all senior managers. A lower level employee can be particularly insidious in wrecking havoc on a whole organization. In one case, two employees were unhappy with the selection of the new department manager and decided to bring her down. In the ensuing 18 months, their constant complaints, malicious compliance, shading of "facts" in seemingly benign situations, combined with their conversations, gossip and innuendo resulted in not only the manager's threatened termination but also a formal investigation by the state licensing board. Both employees claimed their perspective was the "truth" and that the department manager wasn't terminated only because she had a close personal relationship with one of the members of the state board. (The manager had never met any of the state board members.) Even when the manager was vindicated, these two malcontents continued to vilify her.

Interventions with Disturbed People
Effecting a change in a disturbed person's behavior is a formidable process because they don't believe the situation is their fault, and they avoid or deny the need for help.

As a result, standard management practices are ineffectual. Disturbed people don't respond to attempts to model appropriate behavior, an intervention by an executive coach, reorganization of the department, or even disciplinary action. The most effective intervention is professional counseling rather than coaching - and even counseling isn't effective in all cases.

Intervening with a disturbed person isn't for the faint of heart or the inexperienced. Many are quite persuasive and believable when attributing the cause of their problems to others. They can quickly enlist the sympathy of inexperienced therapists and/or HR personnel, shifting the focus to finding help for those they say are responsible.

Another common diversionary tactic is offering unrelated issues or situations as the cause of the problem. Again, the intervention will be deflected from the real issues and circumstances.

In almost every case, when you have a disturbed employee it's imperative you bring in an outside professional with both clinical and organizational development experience to provide an unbiased assessment, make recommendations, and work with an internal intervention team. In case after case I've found that a successful intervention with a disturbed person can only be effected when there is a clear understanding about the dynamics of the situation, the nature of the underlying problems, the impact on the organization, and respect for the rights and interests of the employee and the policies and interests of the organization.


Since 1986, Patricia Wiklund, Ph.D. has helped some of America's largest, and smallest, organizations resolve expensive and troublesome people problems and conflicts by leveraging the strategic power of soft skills®. A former mental health professional, she is as comfortable on the front line, as on the shop floor, or in the corporate executive suite, and also works effectively in government and educational settings. Call her today at 415 641-5997, or email her at to discuss how she can help you put your people and organizations back on track.

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