Training to Manage Argumentative Employees

An intervention by the boss and a group improvisational exercise can help.

I once was walking with a colleague while traveling for business together, recounting to her my travails with the airline. I noted the annoyance of being nickeled and dimed for things such as taking a carry-on onto the plane. Instead of being supportive and empathetic, she sided with the airline! She said that people like the most inexpensive tickets possible, and didn’t mind being nickeled and dimed if that was the price they had to pay—even if, when all was said and done, the a la carte charging might end up to be even more than they would have paid for an old-fashioned all-inclusive ticket. She said I was in the minority in my disgust with the airline. I knew at that moment that I was dealing with a contrarian colleague, who would reflexively disagree with me.

It was apparent that she was the kind of person who looked for differences, rather than commonalties, when talking to others (or at least me). When we spoke about her mother being ill, I expressed sympathy and told her I knew first-hand how hard it could be trying to focus on work while caring and worrying about a parent who is ailing. “Actually, it’s a relief,” she said, noting that the work was a good distraction. In her place, I probably would have said, “Thanks, yeah, it’s hard.”

Finding Points of Agreement

Is there a way to train an employee, who is reflexively argumentative, to look for points of agreement before looking for points of disagreement with others?

Chron has tips for managing argumentative co-workers, but doesn’t address the question of whether this quality can be trained out of them. If all else fails, the author of the piece, Steve Milano, recommends talking to the boss: “If your co-worker still won’t stop arguing, you’ll need to talk to your boss. You’ll need to document that the problem is happening and give several examples. If your coworker is just a personal pain, your boss is probably just going to tell you to handle things yourselves,” Milano writes. “To get your boss to intervene, you’ll need to explain why your coworker’s arguing is hurting the company. That often means it will end up biting your boss.”

He also says it can help to recruit colleagues to back your complaints about the argumentative colleague. However, if your boss(s) holds the argumentative employee in high esteem, this can be dangerous. It’s safest to wait until another co-worker speaks to you privately about the problem colleague. At that point, you can see if you want to find out together if others feel the same way, and then all go to the boss together.

Workplace Energy Vampires

My argumentative colleague was, in fact, called out privately to me by a co-worker who noted her negativity. At that point, however, I had not come to the full realization of what we were dealing with, and could only note that communications with that person were like getting sucked down a rabbit hole with many unnecessary and petty back-and-forths. I told my co-worker that our difficult colleague was a workplace energy vampire.

Indeed, what makes an argumentative co-worker so damaging to the workplace is the energy they zap from others. Constant arguments, disagreement, and debate is tiring. I noticed how much more energy, and in what a better state of mind I was in when my argumentative co-worker had not corresponded with me for a couple days.

It’s easy to say that the solution is simply to fire the argumentative person. The problem is many argumentative people are also good at getting things done. Getting rid of this person may cause great stress to a business unit.

Workplace Intervention

An intervention with the argumentative person is called for in which the boss and colleagues express together to the person that they are a great value to the department, and make a huge contribution, but that they are difficult to work with, and seem to everyone to be reflexively argumentative.

At that same meeting, the boss could lead employees in an improvisational exercise I learned years ago when working on an article about Second City Works, the corporate learning arm of the famous Second City theater. A person in the group starts telling a story, “I went to the movies and,” then the second person needs to build on that—rather than argue with it—and say, “Yes, and…” So, the second person could say, “Yes, and I met an interesting and strange man in line to buy popcorn.” Anything goes in what can be added to the story; the one unacceptable response is, “No, but.” Rather than arguing with how your colleagues have built the story, you need to find a way to add to it. No arguments allowed.

Could the argumentative people you know make it successfully through this exercise? I hope one day the argumentative person I know will get their shot at doing this.

How do you manage argumentative employees in your organization? Is there a way to discuss this difficult personality trait and find a way to make it more manageable and pleasant for colleagues?