Advanced Team Building Challenges: Setting Boundaries for Bullies and Other Tyrants


Dealing with Obnoxious People at Work and On-Line

Strategies for Team Leaders, Community Leaders, and Team Members

There is a perception that teams and team building initiatives should always be harmonious and conflict-free… all times and at all costs. That is certainly the ideal. Team leaders and team building facilitators should, ultimately, aim for harmony and a conflict-free environment.

At work and in virtual teams line on-line communities and dispersed work teams, there are some individuals who will take advantage of the fact that no one wants to upset the apple cart and call them out for their aggressive and inappropriate behaviour. They mistake a gentle approach and the failure to address their behaviour for weakness. There can be serious consequences for the organization, team, and the health of individual team members.

Negative Consequences of Failing to Address Obnoxious Behaviour

Unfortunately, too much agreement can derail teams and actually be a destructive force in team effectiveness. One example would be when groups reach premature consensus before fully exploring options. Some groups actually stifle and punish the expression of opposing points of view. Groupthink sets in resulting in an ineffective team decision-making process.

When issues aren’t surfaced and resolved, this can lead to a toxic work environment, high levels of stress, and illness, both physical and psychological. Effective anger management does not mean avoiding issues that need to be addressed.


There has been some amazing engagement on LinkedIn and positive response to this blog post. Thank you. I was hesitant to write it but it had to be said.

pillsOne LinkedIn member raised the health implications. She is right. I thought I would go into more detail. As a result of having to deal with obnoxious individuals day after day, some employees have suffered everything from psychiatric breakdowns to various physical ailments from ulcers to women experiencing severe disruptions in their cycles. Health issues have implications in terms of human suffering and bottom-line impact.

Despite the fact that the average employee was in their early 30s, one Canadian company had a soaring short-term disability rate due to stress-related illness. When people left the company, some of they met in recovery groups to get over the experience. All of this came tolerating obnoxious behaviour and rewarding individuals who engaged in it with promotions.

(I won’t share the industry, the world is just too small.)

When people are so stressed out by a toxic corporate culture that they have to take time off, they are not producing results for the organization. The company is paying out in terms of increased payments for disability insurance. This has an impact on the bottom line.

Negative Fallout for Virtual Teams and Communities

The stress that online despots create is very real. I have managed many online communities on LinkedIn, Facebook, and even going back to Geocities days. A lot of bullying can take place online. It needs to be taken very seriously. Online bullying has even resulted in suicides. Bullying and pushy behaviour should never be tolerated, on or off-line.

In the on-line groups I own or manage (and I had up to 24 of them including one with 340,000+ members), expectations are really clear and I do not hesitate to boot out members who are aggressive, pushy, and determined to terrorize other group members.

Cultural Differences at Play

Sometimes, this tendency for surface harmony at all costs is cultural.

My culture of origin is Jamaican. I am based in Canada. The corporate culture here definitely discourages the expression of what is perceived as the expression of negative emotion. This is unhealthy.

As I was raised in Canada, my default position during situations involving conflict is definitely Canadian. I definitely respect the way in which many of my fellow Jamaicans can disagree, even bring humour to tense situations, and still be friends. Sometimes the expression of anger goes too far. That is also unhealthy. No culture is perfect. We can learn from each other and strike a balance.

A smile when people are seething underneath the surface is very Canadian but also extremely unhealthy.

Consequences of Passivity

The consequences of a passive approach to conflict management are many. When people are not able to deal with concerns openly and honestly, this leads to backbiting, backstabbing, and bullying.

In addition to backbiting, another destructive force can come into play when a passive approach is used in the face of negative behaviour.

There are some team members and team leaders who will push the envelope and take advantage of an environment where they know they are not going to be called out for their negative, pushy, and aggressive behaviour.

Tyrants and bullies prey on team members who they perceive as being weak or without support. We have seen the dangers of tolerating this type of behaviour in rulers from Ivan the Terrible to Saddam Hussein and regimes from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich. When aggressive behaviour goes unchecked, it can wreak havoc and create a toxic corporate culture.

What’s a Team Leader to Do?

There are a number of things that team leaders and facilitators can do to prevent hostile and aggressive behaviour from running rampant and destabilizing workgroups, teams, organizations, or online communities.

  1. Set Boundaries. I repeat….set boundaries.
  2. Make Expectations Clear.  In a corporation,  clearly articulate corporate values and supportive behaviour. In online communities, set group rules, and ensure that all new members receive a copy. Post reminders from time to time.
  3. Provide feedback privately and document it. In a corporate environment, identify and address the reasons for the negative behaviour. If the individual requires counselling or coaching, provide it. In a meeting or team building environment, this should be done jointly with the facilitator and a member of the senior leadership team.
  4. Outline the consequences of continued bullying or aggressive behaviour. (Privately.)
  5. If the behaviour persists, remove the team member. In corporations, this could mean suspension or termination. Facilitators can only recommend this course of action. They are not in a position to implement it. In online communities, group members can be temporarily or permanently banned.

“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body …if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body….”

Matthew 5: 29 – 30

What’s a Team Member to Do?

  1. Participate in a constructive manner. Express your point of view, once, twice and then leave it at that. There is never an excuse for ramming your ideas down the throats of other team members.
  2. Do not allow yourself or others to be bullied. Calmly and politely state that your point of view is different and that it is best to agree to disagree.
  3. If the other individual continues to be pushy. Identify behaviour that is unacceptable and that you are not prepared to tolerate it.
  4. In a corporation, if the behaviour persists, request a 3-way dialogue with the individual and your shared team leader. Notice I didn’t say engage in backbiting or run and tattle.
  5. In online communities:
  • If possible, discuss your concerns offline or via private message.

witchcautionminiBe careful.

Aggressive individuals often lack any sense of propriety and will breach basic netiquette by making the contents of private messages public.

If you are a group owner or community leader, there should be zero tolerance for this. Such breaches should result in an immediate and permanent ban.

  • If there is no improvement, block the individual.“Avoid loud and aggressive persons, for they are vexatious to the spirit.” Desiderata
  • Sometimes, these individuals will approach the community owner or manager and ask that you unblock them. I have had this happen to me a number of times.
  • If you unblock someone and they start up again, again try the soft approach.
  • When all attempts to calmly set boundaries have been effective do not hesitate to clearly and without apology outline your concerns.
  •  If subtle and indirect hints have been ineffective, you may need to very directly and firmly identify the behaviour that you are not prepared to tolerate. A subtle and gentle approach just won’t work with everyone. Some take this for weakness.
  • If the reaction is negative and the behaviour continues, block the individual permanently.
  • If the bullying or behaviour is severe, report it.

For more tips also consult:

Everyone won’t agree with your approach, especially if they don’t know the entire story. This can’t be your concern if every other method to manage the situation has been exhausted.

Will you do your part?

Tyrants and other aggressive individuals will continue their destructive behaviour only if others are complicit and allow it to continue.  We all need to do our part to put a stop to these destructive practices.

As a team leader or team member, what steps do you plan to take to put a stop to aggressive behaviour and bullying both online and in the workplace?

What strategies do you use to set boundaries when dealing with bullies and other tyrants, online or at work?

How do you respond to those who have a problem with you setting boundaries?

Need Help in Dealing with Aggressive Individuals Before They Destroy Your Team or On-Line Community?


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