Negative Micro Behaviours What Are They And How Can They Be Addressed?

In an HRM article (September 2021), a consulting workplace psychologist identified 8 negative micro behaviours which lead to interpersonal tensions and conflict.

These behaviours were identified as:

  • Interrupting others
  • Negative body language
  • Irritable or arrogant demeanour
  • Complaining and gossiping about others
  • Inappropriate humour or offensive comments
  • Lack of greetings
  • Offering unsolicited advice
  • Not completing work in a timely manner.

I am going to add to this list with behaviours like:

  • Sarcasm
  • Unprofessional email communication (e.g. content, lack of prompt reply, unnecessarily cc’ing a higher manager)

Compared to bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment, ‘micro behaviours’ are often interpreted as being less serious but more difficult to address because micro behaviours present as personal traits, which may have been evident for an extended period of time and never been addressed.

Someone who complains about a colleague’s micro behaviour is typically asked to ‘ignore it’, ‘get over it’ or focus on managing their own reactions to such a situation. A manager rather than address the situation may try to appease the complainant or might even try to blame the complainant for getting upset about something trivial. How often have you heard a manager say, ‘It’s just Sam’?

But once evident, repeated micro behaviours cannot be ignored. The recipient of the behaviour usually gets so annoyed or frustrated they tend to behave poorly and are then verbally counselled and warned.  Or the recipient becomes a serial complainant which frustrates both the complainant and the manager to the point the manager believes the complainant is the problem and the complainant believes the manager is now the problem. Either way, the micro behaviour continues unaddressed.

The best resolution process to address the display of negative micro behaviours is three fold:

  • All staff, preferably in their teams with the manager present, to attend training on the subject including a discussion and examples of what negative micro behaviours are, why it is not acceptable for such behaviour to occur in the workplace, what might contribute to this form of inappropriate communication being employed (even though this is not an excuse of such behaviour), inappropriate methods for staff to try to manage or address such behaviours and the appropriate and acceptable complaints handling process which is to be followed;
  • Using the skills taught and implementing the strategies presented in the training, staff should then discuss with each other what their preferred communication interactions look like such that when such interactions are not occurring, staff are empowered to constructively speak up and address the situation in the moment. Part of the team training session should have included a scaffold or framework for a statement which supports staff to constructively address the display of a negative micro behaviour in the moment, as it happens. Part of the team training is the formation of an agreement that when a person is provided such feedback, they accept that the feedback was offered in good faith and agree to receive and consider the feedback. This can be a very impactful moment and may even lead to a more in depth constructive discussion between both parties as to what dynamics were at play, why the behaviour occurred and what strategies can be drawn upon by either or both parties to minimise a repeat scenario.
  • If a staff member has attempted ‘self management’ of a colleague’s display of a negative micro behaviour and the colleague again displays such behaviour, there is a choice here for the receiver to again speak up in the moment and also escalate the matter to a manager. When the manager receives such a complaint, the manager then arranges to facilitate a discussion between both parties in which both may enter into a resolution discussion in a safe meeting because there is a witness present. The manager may need to emphasise that negative micro behaviours are not acceptable but essentially, they are not in the meeting to resolve the matter, they are present to facilitate both parties having a professional discussion and reaching their own agreement for resolution. The manager should capture this agreement and email its contents to both parties. Then should the micro behaviour continue to be displayed, the manager may then evoke a formal disciplinary process.
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About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.