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Organizational Disrupters

Tips for handling once-peers and others who seek to undermine your authority

by Ronald B. Pickett
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You’ve known him for years; you went to graduate school at the same time, worked on projects together, and served on the board of a professional association. You have even had dinner at each other’s homes! Now he seems to object to every idea and suggestion you come up with—and he does it in public! Today you found out that he is undercutting your authority and talking about you behind your back. What happened, what can you do about it, and how do you get control of the situation?

One of the most difficult situations managers face surprisingly comes from places where it is least expected. It’s the people you know who now start to behave in unreliable and counterproductive ways after you have taken a leadership position. Sometimes this is because you were promoted to a position you both were competing for. Sometimes it arises when you come into a new organization and take a position that your “friend” reports to. One reason this is so insidious is that it is unexpected and subsequently takes longer to uncover—really to accept or believe—because this person is normally a trusted source, a colleague, or a friend.

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A short note on hiring from outside: Many organizations are reluctant to promote people from inside, but there are some hazards to this policy and this article addresses some of them. Take a moment to think about the messages bringing someone in sends:

  • Nobody here has potential for additional responsibilities—they are beyond help!
  • There is no promotional potential in this place!
  • Better the devil we don’t know than the devils that we do know!
  • You think I’ve bad-mouthed this place in the past—just wait!
  • Other organizations are better at developing talent than we are!

On the other hand, bringing someone in from the outside has positive attributes:

  • New blood in the organization
  • No preconceived notions or allegiances
  • A fresh look at old problems
  • Experience from other organizations that may help the new organization

The change

The reason for a change in leaders can have a major influence on your transition and how you approach this new stage in your life. Many laboratories have long-tenured managers, and changeovers are rare and have little precedent. Further, you may not have had the opportunity to observe a wide range of different management styles. The planned retirement of a respected, trusted, and admired leader can be easy and well controlled, and you can expect months of unflattering comparisons.

“Well, Dr. Jones certainly wouldn’t have done it that way.” Or a change can be sudden, disruptive, and mysterious, presenting an especially challenging situation for the new boss. (For more on the techniques for taking charge, see CLMR, May/June 1996 and July/August 1996.)

The reality

Regardless of how you got there, you have found yourself with a deteriorating situation and a tenuous grasp on control!

First—Assume that the disruptive person will eventually realize that his or her behavior is counterproductive and will change. But keep a close check on the impact the person is having, as he or she has already shown himself or herself to be potentially dangerous.

Second—Assume that the cause is faulty communication or a “personality conflict,” but don’t assume that for long! Take extra precautions to clarify your expectations, and check to ensure that your message is being received correctly.

Third—Test your observations and conclusions. Get input from other respected sources on the impact the person is having on the staff. Ensure that your observations are objective and you are not being overly suspicious.

Fourth—Recognize the uniqueness of each work group you lead, and use the appropriate level of control for each.

A friend of mine recently described three lab groups he leads—researchers and students at three labs and two different universities. “Ron, I have found I really have to treat each of these groups very differently. One group at UCX needs close direction and constant supervision. If I don’t spend a lot of time with them and check what they are doing, there’s no telling where they will end up. In one way it’s great because it often leads to some really good ideas, but the flip side of the coin is that there is an awful lot of wasted time and scarce financial resources.

“Another group is virtually ‘self-managed.’ My role is to be available as a coach and a resource. They have energy and direction and ‘self-control.’ But they aren’t nearly as imaginative as the first group. Then there is the third group. Sometimes it needs a hands-on approach, and at other times it needs to be left alone. It took me several months to see what my management, supervisory, or mentoring roles should be for each of these groups, and I almost had to write it down—map it out—to understand what was going on and how to approach each. Now I’m comfortable wearing three different hats.”

Reduce the risk

Honor the change. When you take on a new position, do something that will mark the change and include as many people as possible—a special meeting, a ceremony, something that gives you the opportunity to show that things will be different; use these scenarios as an opportunity to describe your goals, values, and ethics.

Provide a clear vision of the future. Include both productivity and behavioral standards.

Set clear, agreed-upon expectations. Be specific and make them measurable. Focus on productivity, such as numbers of publications or completed reports. It is more difficult to set and measure behavioral standards, so they may have to be observational: what you see that is impact- or results-based, such as improvements in climate, communication, and work processes.

Co-opt. Get influential respected members of the staff on your side. Set special expectations for them and describe what you need from them and what you have to offer, such as visibility, opportunities for advancement, recognition, etc. Get your antagonist involved in a leadership role, in projects that will move your agenda ahead. You can also get him or her more focused on professional accomplishments and recognition.

Train/develop. Provide special options for learning and management development.

Establish a coaching relationship with specific areas identified for improvement.

Ostracize. If he or she continues to demonstrate disruptive behavior, separate him or her from the group. Take the person off committees, remove him or her from the review processes, give the disruptive team member menial assignments. This can be a powerful factor for bringing professionals in line, into compliance. (Hint: Remember that getting the person back “on board” will take some special attention.)

Involve HR. At a certain stage, after you have done some of the things listed above and they haven’t been successful, it is necessary to involve your company’s professional human resources staff. They know the legal and corporate rules and regulations and are specifically trained in behavior management techniques. They can save you a lot of pain and anguish and from the possibility of a lawsuit!

The House effect. The TV show House features a gifted diagnostician whose skills and value to the hospital have become so vital that his totally obnoxious behavior is accepted and/or allowed. (See “Conflict Management on the TV Show House,” PEJ, Summer 2012.) Don’t permit yourself to get into that situation, regardless of the notoriety, fame, and reputation that the person creating problems for you carries with him or her. Put the individual on notice. (This is an area where HR can be very helpful in coaching you on exactly what to say and write about the person.)

If you are in a situation where the person is irreplaceable and knows it, acknowledge the reality, negotiate a working relationship, compromise to find an acceptable middle ground, and actively manage the situation to avoid spillover. Help the person “out.” If there are no signs of improvement or willingness to change, give a written notice and make sure you have written documentation of their disruptive, unprofessional behavior. Help them “out.” Assist the person in finding another position.

Fire. If you don’t see the changes that are required and if a negative climate continues to pervade the organization, you need to take the steps necessary to remove him or her. You will likely discover that the staff will know what is going on and wonder why you put up with the person for as long as you did!

Things you can do:

  • Keep an eye out for unreliable peers or “known” subordinates.
  • Confront early; check out your perceptions. “Here’s what I’m seeing.” Describe the behavior. Ask, “What’s your explanation?”
  • Acknowledge the person as a key and important member of your staff—but make it clear that he or she is not indispensable!
  • State specific expectations and schedule a series of follow-up reviews. This is a time when clarity and negotiated expectations are most important.
  • Provide a clear opportunity for change, and acknowledge it when it is observed.
  • Without rapid, observable change, start the process of documentation with your company’s human resources department.
  • You have to be seen as serious, capable, and empowered to take action. Wish the individual well in his or her future endeavors!

While this article has been aimed at peers or people you know, the process is effective with anyone who attempts to undercut your authority and position.

Allowing negative disruptive behavior to continue can destroy good organizations—and their leaders. In fact, dealing with a disruptive individual early in your tenure can have a very positive impact on your reputation and improve your chances of being successful.


Michael Burns, PhD, the Arnold & Mabel Beckman Professor and professor of biomedical engineering, surgery, and developmental and cell biology (UC Irvine); adjunct professor of bioengineering (UC San Diego); and chairman and CEO, Beckman Laser Institute Inc., was extremely helpful in coalescing the concepts and some of the examples in this article.