The four devils of difficult behaviour

06 September 2022

Zoe Routh

Zoe Routh is a leadership expert. She has worked with individuals and teams internationally and in Australia since 1987.

Poor behaviour in the workplace can be contagious, but so too, can good workplace behaviour. Zoë Routh explores the four ‘devils’ of difficult behaviours, including their causes, and provides some preventative measures.

“Go on. It’s no big deal. We work hard for this place. I just need a little bit for my kid’s school project.” Georgina stuffed stationery supplies into her purse at the end of the day. Tim looked on, befuddled. He knew it was wrong. But maybe Georgina was right. No big deal. It’s only post-it notes. Besides, they did work really hard, often overtime for no extra pay. Tim helped himself, too.

In their Harvard Business Review article (2018), Dimmock and Gerken share their research on the contagiousness of employee fraud. They say: “…even your most honest employees become more likely to commit misconduct if they work alongside a dishonest individual.” Bad behaviour is contagious.

So too, is good behaviour! The human brain is wired for imitation. It’s how we develop a sense of trust and intimacy.

How then can we avoid the worst of our own behaviours, so as not to ‘infect’ others?

Difficult behaviours are ferocious, like the natural elements of wind, water, air, and fire. When the conditions are good, the elements are pleasant. Think of a great day out at the beach: the water is refreshing, there is a cool breeze, the sand feels good, and we are warm and content. If we are happy at work, it’s similar. A day passes as an enjoyable experience.

In weather, if something stirs the elements, the results can be disastrous. Floods, earthquakes, raging fires, and cyclones. So too, human behaviour: when we are stirred, we can wreak havoc.

We call these difficult behaviours, the Four Devils. Let’s look at their causes, and some preventative measures.

The Four Devils

Causes of contagious poor behaviour boil down to a fear of loss. Our human biochemistry has programmed us against losing anything, regardless of how petty and small.

Workplace losses never feel small, and invariably threatening. These include fear of losing power and autonomy (none of us like being told what to do!); losing position and status in a group (who wants to get demoted or passed over?); losing performance (no one wants to fall behind); and losing place and belonging (all of us want to belong and feel safe). Let’s look at the fallout of these triggers.

Devil 1: The Ground Splitter

One or more of the causes can result in white-anting, backbiting, and two-faced subterfuge. We may find it difficult to raise issues directly, maybe due to anxiety over the fallout. Our frustration and resentment goes underground, causing tremors. We seek to bring others on our disgruntled journey. This is what went astray with Georgina and Tim. Resentment led to deception.

No one really wants to be an underminer. It’s time to hone our difficult conversation skills and exercise our courage muscle to address the issues head on.

Devil 2: The Firebug

Anger and frustration can come out in unhelpful circumstances. Feeling disgruntled, we may become argumentative and critical. Our vexation can run rampant, like wildfire. If we’re not careful, we might become the naysayer blocker who no one wants to work with.

We need to start noticing what triggers anger and frustration. We can get really good at observing the physical sensations and breathing through them. Breath can tame the firebug.

Devil 3: The Storm Driver

There’s nothing like unfairness to make us feel hurt and harried. In this wounded condition, we can default to emotional ranting, letting our emotions wash over us like a thunderstorm. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an emotional tirade, you’ll know that the rationale of an argument is lost in the stormy blast of emotion.

When we feel hurt, it’s time to take a time out. It is useful to write in a journal to capture the story of what is happening and how we feel it has injured us. By putting it on paper, it helps purge the emotional surge. Once we feel the storm ebb, we will be better able to raise the issue in a more useful way.

Devil 4. The Water Bomber

When we feel ignored or excluded, we experience this as physical pain. In our distress, we find it hard to communicate, caught in the wash of our turbulent emotions. Sometimes we clam up tight and shut down; sometimes we wallow.

Being tangled in someone’s emotional wake is a messy experience. We need to develop our emotional mastery, so that we avoid showering others in negativity. Breathing techniques can help ease the grip of emotions, so we can stand on firmer, more rational ground.

As we become more aware of our triggers and tendencies, we can ease the temptation to poor behaviours. It’s how we tame the Devils and enjoy calmer emotional weather.

Zoë Routh shows leaders and teams struggling with silos and office politics how to work better together. She is the author of ‘People Stuff: Beyond Personality Problems – An Advanced Handbook for Leadership’. For more information, go to

  • You may also be interested in