Workplace battles: How to properly handle combative employees

Combative employees or bosses love arguing a lot and sometimes on small issues.

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Ever found yourself locking horns with a colleague or boss who turns every meeting into a battleground and every daily task into a debate? As you reflect on your situation, John Murage recalls having similar trouble in his team.

He says while working for a construction company his teammate would pretend that she did not fully understand the assignment or have all the necessary resources. This would then force her colleagues to work on her particular tasks.

"When we worked together on a project, she was always complaining about what goes wrong with the project, instead of performing the tasks. Sometimes I even avoided giving her tasks because it was uncomfortable for me to get into conflict," he recalls.

While the employee did not directly report to Mr Murage, he battled with the decision of whether to report her to her line manager for fear of shaking up the whole team.

"I consulted a mentor and learned about how to manage such employees. The key thing for me was to stop being afraid of having a conflict with her and have boundaries. The project moved forward and this difficult employee finally started working."

Tell-tale signs

As it was in Mr Murage's case, Milka Murigi, the Director of Verde Edge Consulting shares that combative employees or bosses love arguing a lot and sometimes on small issues.

"They tend to also stick around the same point which in turn wastes time, draws a lot of attention, don't take criticism easily, they are argumentative and rude displaying a lot of unprofessionalism. Sometimes it is a personality problem," she elaborates.

Further, Ms Murigi suggests that such combative behaviour might stem from dissatisfaction in the workplace, whether it's due to the environment, the role, or even feelings of incompetence.

As a result, such managers make employees feel demotivated in the workplace and even perform poorly.

"I remember working with this boss who would send emails in the wee hours of the night in red capital letters. You know that shows that the person was shouting. The first half of my day would be ruined because I would read and re-read wondering why my boss communicated that way."

Since she was on probation, Ms Murigi gave feedback on the emails she received and the boss stopped sending such emails.


Yusuf Saleh, the Deputy Director of Human Resources & Administration at Business Registration Services, points out that dealing with combative employees or bosses has significant challenges, particularly in environments with distinct power distances within an organisation's hierarchy.

These challenges are compounded by inadequate policies and procedures that fail to address or mitigate such behaviours effectively.

Additionally, when a boss exhibits a carefree personality, similar to Mr Murage's case, it can complicate the situation.

This in turn leads to communication breakdowns, diminished team morale, and a toxic work environment where collaboration and productivity are severely hindered. The difficulty in managing such relationships not only affects daily operations but also the overall health of the organisation.

However, such behaviours can be mitigated right from the onset.

Mr Saleh shares that through employee engagement, company heads remain in touch with their staff and are able to nip such tendencies in the bud as soon as they happen.

"Also, encouraging feedback and acting on it can help salvage the situation even before a company is slapped with a lawsuit."

Although managing such employees can be a herculean task, Mr Saleh points out that when dealing with a boss or colleague, one's comprehension of their character and temperament can significantly ease the challenge.

"Keep your own behaviour professional and composed. Try to understand the root of their combativeness. It could be they are under pressure, feel threatened... this can help you in addressing the real issue."

Additionally, set clear boundaries and keep records of interactions which can be useful for reporting purposes or when things have flared up and you are in a lawsuit or the HR's office.

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