4 Truths & 1 Myth for Leaders dealing with workplace 'Hostage Takers'

black and white city man people

It goes without saying that when an organisation wants to fundamentally change elements of workplace culture (e.g. robust process management, in-depth customer focus, collaboration across the organisation, introduce continuous improvement, etc.) to support strategy execution, there are many things to consider.  Complete clarity and awareness of the new (or existing) strategic direction, creating desire and WIFM to change, providing the resources and skillset plus allocated time is all necessary effort to be successful in aligned culture change initiatives.

In my experience though, one of the biggest impediments for any organisation attempting significant cultural change is not dealing with the ‘hostage takers’.  Whether the culture starting point is to go from dysfunctional to average, or from average to good, or from good to great, the degree is almost irrelevant.  Significant change will be all the more difficult while the ‘hostage taker’ sacred cow or the ‘just too hard to deal with’ employees are left unchecked – it is the first place we must start and most of us intuitively know this.

The question becomes then why do so many leaders hold onto the eternal, misguided belief that with clarity of direction, resources, etc., that the ‘hostage takers’ will simply jump on the bus?  That overnight, these employees (some of which are actually in leadership positions) will simply change their toxic, negative, self-indulgent, passive-aggressive behaviour. The kind of behaviour that sucks the energy and joy out of any work environment and makes us want to rock in the corner.  Why do leaders believe this? Because it’s easier to think that with clarity of direction and effort at an organisational level that the once ‘hostage taker’ will simply jump on the bus to a new, brighter future. It’s easier to think and hope for this than the alternate, more probable reality that, actually they won’t jump on the bus.  That in fact, what they will probably do is let the tires down, break the side mirrors and siphon the diesel, leaving the bus on the side of the highway waiting for AA to turn up.

Individual behaviour is a powerful force and organisational systems alone are clearly not enough to influence behaviour. Hence, ‘hostage takers’ and all the associated, dysfunctional behaviour that goes along with that infamous title definitely need targeted, tough, duty of care focus from leaders if there is any hope of aligning their behaviour with the rest of the organisation during times of change. 

To follow are 4 Truths and 1 Myth relating to ‘Hostage Takers’ in the workplace:

1)      Hostage Takers are far & few between (Truth)

When an organisation starts on a journey of change, at first there will always be a period of hesitation, confusion, fear and uncertainty. However, as long as the organisation does a decent job in communicating future direction at all levels, discussing the critical reasons for change, providing resources and time, and developing any necessary new skillsets, in time most employees will happily jump on the bus (some personalities such as, the ‘evaluator critics’, may need more detail but with more clarity and knowledge they will eventually get there).  The ‘hostage takers’ are different though.  These are the employees that were in fact ‘hostage takers’ before the change, they will be ‘hostage takers’ during the change, slowing it down, and if not appropriately managed will continue to be ‘hostage takers’ long after everyone else is aligned with the new direction. The psychological anxiety and stress associated with organisational change will merely give the ‘hostage taker’ more ability and a bigger platform to negatively influence people’s view of change.  It enables the ‘hostage takers’ to sing loudly and proudly the ‘them & us, management does not know what it’s doing’ tune to a much larger audience. An audience that potentially would not have listened to the ‘them & us’ diatribe if the organisation was in a more stable condition, rather than a state of uncertain flux.

Here’s the thing though, ‘hostage takers’ really do represent a very small percentage of the population. It’s just unfortunately they generally know how to play to people’s fear of change and can be very successful in polarising employees into the ‘them & us’ mentality and this is what makes the ‘hostage taker’ so dangerous during times of change.

2)     It’s okay to push the reset button (Truth)

As a leader, you can use organisational change efforts as an opportunity to push the reset button for your team. Take some time to think through what your leader expectations are of your team members (e.g. be on time, be curious, constructively challenge the status quo, take risks and learn from mistakes, manage up, show courage, be a team player, collaborate with other teams, no passive-aggressive nonsense, leave your tiaras at home, etc.).  Then bring your team together to discuss your expectations and brainstorm what their expectations are of you and each other and ways to embed and bring these expectations to life (e.g. team charter on office wall). While this exercise will not necessarily change a hostage taker’s entrenched, toxic behaviour, it is an important exercise to establish line in the sand understanding on what behaviour is acceptable and what behaviour is not acceptable in the work environment going forward.  This is a critical starting point, particularly where toxic behaviour has been the norm for some time and where less experienced leaders feel completely overwhelmed in knowing where to start in turning things around.

3)      The world will not end if you tackle the ‘hostage taker’ (Truth)

It’s not fun, of course it’s not, dealing with the ‘hostage taker’, it’s tough, exhausting and at times soul destroying. Some ‘hostage takers’ are remarkably skilled at stepping up to or even over the line and when you attempt as a leader to hold them to account, their brilliance in redirecting and making the fault lie with you as the leader is nothing short of spectacular.  It can be a very lonely place as a leader holding the line but I promise you, the world will not end if you take on the ‘hostage taker’, and in fact it will get a whole lot better if you push through the pain.  I get to say this without any hesitation after many years of fiercely supporting leaders to successfully target their ‘hostage takers’. To then watch these same leaders not only regain their confidence and self-esteem but also go onto unleash potential for their team making it a way cooler workplace.

If your business does not have in-house HR capability to support you as a leader, there are other (some free) external types of support which can skill you up on the required employment processes to deal with workplace ‘hostage takers’ starting with how to have a tough, duty of care conversation. For example, see the NZ Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment website for advice or talk with your local Employers Chamber of Commerce office to see what type of employment relation workshops are available. Ideally though, if budget allows, partner with a reputable Employment Specialist to help mitigate risk.  The Employment Specialist can help you to structure a tough conversation that highlights both the ‘hostage taker’ behaviour issues and what your behaviour expectations are going forward, e.g. ‘instead of constantly complaining about work process problems you are to actively support your team members to find solutions that improve the processes’. 

4)     Experience is everything! (Truth)

While relevant blogs, employment seminars and workshops are a good starting point in supporting you to deal with your ‘hostage takers’ these learning events represent about 5-10 % of what you will need to feel confident and be successful.  What is much more essential is actual experience, there is no way around this unfortunately – here’s the good news though.  As you significantly grow in your experience, your threshold for negative, dysfunctional behaviour significantly reduces to the point that you will hopefully never again have sleepless nights by being at the mercy of a ‘hostage taker’.  Your vast experience will enable you to nip this type of toxic, destructive behaviour in the bud from the very outset, not allowing it to go on unchecked (yah for you!).

So, once you have completed your robust research into how to start the employment process of dealing with your ‘hostage taker’, you have clarified what the main behaviour issues are and what your expectations are, you need to pick a date and just dive in!  To help kick start you, to follow are some basic do’s and don’ts when holding your first tough conversation with a ‘hostage taker’:

DOs:  choose the right place & time, remain objective, be mindful of your own mindset & biases, be comfortable with silence & take your time, actively listen with an open mind, stay calm & close early if needed.

DON’Ts: don’t lose your cool, don’t get sucked into emotion, don’t be judgemental, don’t make it personal, don’t take it personally, don’t become unprofessional (even when provoked) & close early if needed.

5)      They will hate you.  (Myth)

If you deal with the ‘hostage taker’, everyone else in the team will hate you because the ‘hostage taker’ is popular, technically knowledgeable and well respected.  Actually, no, this is myth.  In my experience, the ‘hostage taker’ is not popular (although many think they are, generally all part of their overall lack of personal insight), they may be knowledgeable (in fact many probably are), but they are certainly not well respected by their peers.  In fact, most peers are probably pissed off, perplexed and in more serious situations, considering leaving the organisation because the leader has apparently done nothing to deal with the ‘hostage taker’.  When you don’t deal with the ‘hostage taker’, it is not just your confidence and self-esteem that takes a massive hit, it is also your credibility as a leader and that is not a great place for any leader to be.  It can also severely damage your career development opportunities as your leadership personal brand in dealing with tough situations is adversely affected, hence there is clearly a lot at stake for leaders. When you have a reputation for not being afraid to deal with the ‘hostage taker’, your ability and capacity to lead your team through times of significant change is much greater and in addition, this reputation gets quickly noted by more senior management.  

Dealing with the ‘hostage taker’ has its risks, of course it does. For example, if a ‘hostage taker’ in a technology company decides that they are not particularly interested in playing nicely with others, when challenged over this they may choose to leave the organisation taking their IP knowledge with them.  However, here’s the crucial thing to think about - how much more organisational IP knowledge through innovation can be created without all the noise and distraction of the ‘hostage taker’.  For all the glitz and glam of Google including the amazing employee benefits, don’t think for one second that Google tolerates ‘hostage takers’.  They don’t and the reason Google doesn’t is they fundamentally understand the barrier to future innovation that ‘hostage takers’ can create.  While you may lose valuable IP today if a ‘hostage taker’ walks, it cannot begin to equate to the value that situation creates by unleashing a more positive, collaborative team environment where people can much more easily innovate and execute on core business purpose.

So, in closing, the financial and reputational costs to the organisation in tolerating ‘hostage takers’ in terms of employee morale and time spent are both considerable and well understood. The personal costs to the individual leader though are interminable and in some cases unrecoverable.  Whether its complete loss of confidence, self-esteem or / and credibility as a leader, allowing a ‘hostage taker’ under your watch to go unchecked is both tragic and unnecessary.  Again, I know its tough (that’s why they call it a ‘tough’ conversation) but again, I promise you, when you successfully liberate your team, your organisation and yourself from ‘hostage taker’ behaviour, it will all be worth it.

Mary Buckley