Are you a troublemaker?

19 August 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

When employees in an organisation experience difficulty, one tends to individualise the case and see those individuals as difficult and/or troublesome. But drawing on the systems-psychodynamics approach pioneered by the Tavistock Institute and this article by Anton Obholzer and Vega Zagier Roberts, I argue that individuals labelled as ‘troublemakers’ are selected unconsciously by their colleagues to express something on behalf of the organisation. I also propose how the organisation (and the individual) can deal more effectively with what is troubling them.

Making trouble

My first year at a UK-based research centre was certainly one to remember. It was characterised by a strained relationship between me and my line manager.

Communication between us was mostly email based, partly because they were often travelling overseas for work. The following vignettes describing email exchanges illustrate the strain:

  • In response to a request from my manager to produce a report at short notice, I said I would struggle to do so. To this my manager said that I knew this was a priority and that they had set aside time to offer support. I responded by listing the other commitments I had, and how I had lacked support when I had requested it earlier (for this and other projects). My manager responded by saying I was uncooperative and lacked flexibility and told me not to be disrespectful.
  • My manager said how annoyed they were that I had posted a research strategy (that they had contributed to) to a shared online space for team members to comment on. I responded by saying her emails were hurtful. I was then accused of implying criticism of their management over a period of time (which I later denied) and of lacking a cooperative team spirit (again).
  • I was asked by my manager to undertake a literature review, to inform a broader report, which I did. Shortly before submission of the whole report, my manager told me the focus of the literature review ought to be broader. They then took this out of my hands and handed it to a colleague without explanation.

By the end of the year, I felt overworked, undermined and disempowered. To top things off, my manager deemed I had not met my annual objectives. I subsequently felt hurt and angry.

Several colleagues had experienced similar dynamics working with my manager but were reluctant to formally make a complaint to senior management. Another manager suggested I do so through the resubmission of my annual appraisal form. I did and the human resources department subsequently conducted an investigation that led to the manager in question receiving a warning and moving to another part of the organisation.

However, over the years I continued to experience difficulties with other line managers, often speaking out, as I described in this case. I worried that I’d be seen as a troublemaker by senior managers across the centre. And arguably they did when they decided not to promote me into a senior management position, which I ultimately took as a sign that I’d reached the end of the road in that organisation.

Acting on behalf of the group

Organisations and groups might have members who are considered to be difficult, disturbed or impossible and whose behaviour is often regarded as getting in the way of the others’ good work.

The individual who gives their manager a hard time or holds up meetings by questioning and arguing every point, needs to be viewed not as a difficult or troublesome individual – although they may well be that – but as an institutional mouthpiece, into whom all staff have projected their unease.

Whilst other staff might be uncomfortable and wish to dissociate themselves from the so-called troublemaker, they may actually be disowning a part of themselves which they locate in the troublemaker.

The most vulnerable or least competent group members tend to be ‘selected’ to voice the organisation’s dilemma. The troublemakers may experience high levels of stress and be scapegoated by other staff. But they are actually (often unconsciously) acting on behalf of other staff.

Moreover, the unconscious roles that troublemakers are pulled into may be familiar to or comfortable for them due to patterns of relating learnt in their infancy. Rather than seeing their behaviour as a personal problem and part of the hazards of working with others, we ought to regard their behaviour as part of a broader organisational dynamic or need.

Returning to the opening vignettes, I believe that my manager projected onto me paranoia, frustration and fragmentation, which I suggest were brought on not only by their personality, but also by the nature of the work of the research centre. In hindsight, my complaint served to highlight the issues that the organisation was facing including increasingly demanding clients and high levels of competition in the business environment.

The hurt I experienced being on the receiving end of my manager’s emails, represented not only their anger, but the organisation’s collective anger with these broader dynamics. Arguably this resulted in difficulties in respecting one’s own and organisational boundaries with staff bending to clients’ every need, poor treatment of staff, especially of those who were younger, female and non-white and the lack of proper communication and dialogue across the organisation. The organisation unwittingly reproduced internally, the very dynamics it was trying to eliminate in its environment – the power asymmetries between different groups of people (based on geographical location, gender, race, class, etc).

I suggest both my manager and I were ‘used’ or ‘enrolled’ by the group to voice the organisation’s unacknowledged anxieties about the work that we were doing. We were both troublemakers in a way. It was a role that I was familiar with given the difficulties I experienced with my family growing up as a child. Nevertheless, the research centre failed to deal with the organisational dynamics, instead reprimanding the manager in question and discouraging me from staying on at the centre. Not surprisingly the problems re-erupted in future and elsewhere in the organisation in different ways, which resulted in the departure of some staff who could not, or did not want to, express their grievances formally.

Implications for senior managers

Rather than attributing problems to specific personalities, they need to be tackled at a group or organisational level. In other words, instead of complaining about how terrible a specific person is being, there needs to be a move towards understanding that we all have difficult work-related feelings which we need to own and express (and not leave to so-called troublemakers to do so on our behalf).

As employees start to ‘own’ the feelings they have, so called troublemakers will be able to move out of the role into which they have mobilised. Taking an organisation or group-wide approach can serve to draw all members of staff back into their role and enable them to resume work in pursuing the organisation’s mission. An intervention that focuses solely on the difficulties between two individuals can often serve to provide the rest of the staff with a spectacle to enjoy.

At the same time, we all have to take responsibility for the role we play in an organisation. This requires an awareness of our own susceptibility to being drawn into certain unconscious roles on behalf of the organisation. Even just recognising that one is being used to perform some unconscious task on behalf of others can be liberating. It can also make one less vulnerable to organisation-wide dynamics. Having the benefit of another person’s observations can help to remove oneself from the roles one is sucked into.

However, as organisations develop ways of functioning that protect certain patterns of relating, and since organisations of a particular type tend to bring together staff who display similar patterns of relating within groups, it may be necessary from time to time to get help from someone outside the organisation. They may be an organisational development consultant, a team coach or someone who functions in a role that is sufficiently outside the situation in question so that they can help restore the group’s capacity to think, which those inside may struggle to do given they are caught up in entrenched patterns of relating.

Have you been seen to make trouble for your organisation? What might that have this represented for the organisation? What toll has that taken on you?