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Being an effective manager Learning resource


Handling conflict and discipline

Challenging behaviours in the workplace

Challenging behaviour in the workplace describes behaviour exhibited by an employee that interferes with other employees' work. Challenging behaviours also occur outside the workplace and affect many people in the community. It is not an inevitable result of developmental disability.

Common examples of challenging behaviour are aggression, self-injurious behaviour, property destruction, oppositional behaviour, stereotyped behaviours and socially inappropriate behaviour. Some examples are set out below.

Challenging behaviour Example
Aggression includes biting and scratching, hitting, pinching, grabbing, hair pulling, throwing objects, verbal abuse, screaming, spitting
Self-injurious behaviour most commonly cutting, scraping, burning, biting or hitting
Stereotyped behaviours repetitive movements, rocking, repetitive speech, and repetitive manipulation of objects
Socially inappropriate behaviour includes damage to property, hyperactivity, stealing, inappropriate sexualised behaviour, destruction of clothing, incontinence, temper tantrums, lack of awareness of danger, withdrawal

It is important to remember that challenging behaviour may seriously affect a person's health and quality of life. Some examples are listed here.

Behaviour Possible effect
Aggressive behaviour accidental injury
Self-injurious behaviour (including ingestion or inhalation of foreign bodies) blindness, bowel perforation, infection, haemorrhaging, brain damage and even death
Stereotyped behaviour repetitive strain injuries
Socially inappropriate behaviour loneliness or social isolation

There can be multiple reasons for people exhibiting challenging behaviour including:

Important issues in communicating with a person with challenging behaviour include:

It is important to review incidents where challenging behaviours have been exhibited in the workplace. Some review questions include:

Case study: I'm new around here

Matthew was a bit worried when he began his first day at Interquartz Inc. He had never worked with people with disability before and although he had been told he would receive some training he was concerned he wouldn't be able to deal well with challenging behaviours. He was delighted to discover that, following a short introduction to the organisation, he was to attend a workshop with other managers about dealing with challenging behaviour in the workplace.

The workshop began with the trainer asking for definitions of 'challenging behaviour'. The responses from the group included 'It's difficult behaviour', 'It's angry', aggressive behaviour', 'It's uncommunicative behaviour, like sulking or shouting and it makes my job really hard' and 'Sometimes when people are under stress their behaviour can change'. The trainer explained that working environments, significant life events, communication issues and the stage of life can affect behaviour. He went on to describe how changes in behaviour serve a function or purpose for a person. The trainer emphasised that challenging behaviour relates to individuals not to disabilities.

Matthew left the workshop with a clear message that because each person is different he would need to deal with each incident individually.

In your workplace

1. What guidelines or procedures are available to assist you in dealing with challenging behaviour in the workplace?

2. What hints would you suggest for managers and supervisors dealing with challenging behaviours in the workplace?

3. Where can you gain additional information or training about dealing with challenging behaviours in the workplace?

Key learnings

Each incident of challenging behaviour should be dealt with on its merits. Where additional guidance or training is needed managers and supervisors should talk to workplace trainers or human resources managers to get additional advice and information about dealing with challenging behaviours in the workplace.

Handling conflict

Conflict occurs when two people have perceived incompatible goals or experience interference from others in achieving their goals. Thomas and Kilmann (in Cole 2002, p.175) developed a conflict mode instrument that is designed to assess an individual's behaviour in conflict situations. They maintain that a person's behaviour can be scaled between assertive (the extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy his/her own concerns) or cooperative (the extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy the other person's concerns). These two basic dimensions of behaviour can be used to define five methods of dealing with conflict.

Handling conflict diagram

Source: Thomas and Kilmann in Cole 00 , p.1 5)

Competing is assertive and uncooperative – individuals pursue their own concerns at the other person's expense.

Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative – individuals neglect their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person.

Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative – individuals do not immediately pursue their own concerns or those of the other person; they don't address the issues.

Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative – this involves an attempt to work with the other person to find some solution which fully satisfies the concerns of both people.

Compromising is intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness – the objective is to find a mutually acceptable solution which partially satisfies both parties.

Everyone is capable of using all five conflict-handling modes but some people use some modes better than others.

Case study: Talk it over

Jolene and Nick, supported employees working at Tea for Two, a Disability Business Service that packaged specialist tea, were arguing loudly about the best way for the finished cartons to be sealed. Loud voices and yelling were heard across the workshop and some other supported employees were becoming distressed at the level of noise.

Carla, Jolene and Nick's supervisor, asked them to join her in the tea room, away from the workshop. She recognised that moving to another area may help calm the discussion and would provide an opportunity for the three of them to sit and talk about the issue. Once they were in the tea room Carla asked Jolene and Nick to tell her about their ideas. Together they talked about different ways the work could be done.

In your workplace

1. Do you have a preferred method for dealing with conflict in the workplace? Can you describe it?

2. What challenges would you face when trying some of the methods described above in your workplace?

3. How would you overcome these challenges?

Key learnings

Conflict can be positive and lead to improved work practices and procedures. Ideally managers and supervisors will choose from a range of conflict resolution strategies to resolve conflict in the workplace.

Workplace discipline

Most employees voluntarily follow workplace policies and procedures and meet rules and standards. Employees who fail to follow rules, standards, practices and policies should be disciplined according to the procedures set out in the Disability Business Service's discipline policy and procedure guidelines.

There are usually specific procedures that managers and supervisors are expected to follow when dealing with disciplinary matters in the workplace. It is particularly important to know when discipline is required in accordance with organisational due processes, and that the associated concept of fairness is observed when deliberating any possible disciplinary action. In many instances managers and supervisors will need to use judgement to decide whether an action or set of actions require disciplinary intervention.

Depending on the situation, the policies, procedures and laws in place, workplace disciplinary action can be required. Disciplinary actions in the workplace could include:

Some common reasons for disciplining employees include the following:

Disruptive behaviours in the workplace include:

Unethical behaviours in the workplace include:

Attendance behaviours in the workplace include:

In circumstances where a corrective approach has been unsuccessful and additional disciplining is required, managers and supervisors should discuss the circumstances with their manager or the human resources manager.

Case study: Smoking again?

Aaron and Victoria, supported employees in a Disability Business Service, were close friends. While the Disability Business Service had a no smoking policy, it was well known that Aaron and Victoria regularly left their workstations to have a chat and a smoke behind the main building. This practice had been continuing for around two years.

Saundra, as the new human resources manager, decided the practice had to stop. There were numerous issues that concerned her including safety and duty of care to employees. Saundra approached Davo, Aaron and Victoria's supervisor, to discuss the issues.

Davo was reluctant to intervene to stop Aaron and Victoria smoking. Saundra had to move the issue from a conversation with Davo to a directive, where she instructed Davo to request Aaron and Victoria to stay at their workstations during work time and not to smoke on the premises. Aaron and Victoria ignored Davo's request and continued to leave their workstations. Davo repeated the request and explained the reasons why they needed to stop but the behaviour continued. Eventually Davo spoke to Saundra to get advice on what he should do. Together they met with Aaron and Victoria and explained the workplace rules and consequences of not following them.

In your workplace

Are you familiar with the discipline policy and procedures for your workplace? If not, access a copy and read them.

1. What additional information, advice or training do you believe you might need in relation to dealing with disciplinary matters in your workplace? What will you do to gain this?

2. What skills do you need in order to carry out a discipline role? Who would you contact to get assistance in developing these skills?

Key learnings

All employees need to be aware of the policies and procedures for disciplinary action in the workplace. It is part of the manager's and supervisor's role to ensure all team members are aware of and understand these rules and regulations.

Using the complaints procedure

Each workplace should have a customised set of policies and procedures for dealing with complaints. Ideally these documents will be readily accessible to all employees and provide clear means for employees to have complaints dealt with. Effective use of a complaints procedure will depend on Disability Business Services:

Case study: No news is not good news

Deanne Nunnan, the CEO of Paksafe, a Disability Business Service, was concerned that there had not been one complaint from within Paksafe, or from outside, for more than three months. At a managers' meeting she explained that she viewed complaints as opportunities for improvements to be made. She described them as a free advisory service.

She requested that the complaints policy and procedure documents be reviewed to make sure they were up to date and flexible for use by all employees. Paksafe had grown significantly since they had been written and they were outdated. She also asked that plain English versions be developed at the same time. Deanne also asked that Paksafe's policies and procedures for occupational health and safety and sexual harassment in the workplace be reviewed to ensure the complaints procedures were consistent and clear.

In your workplace

1. How does your workplace deal with complaints from employees?

2. How does your workplace deal with complaints from customers?

3. What action should be taken within your workplace to ensure the complaints policy and procedures are up to date and work well?

Key learnings

Managers and supervisors need workplace support in up-to-date policies and procedures in order to deal effectively with complaints.

General recognition that complaints can be beneficial can help managers and supervisors deal with complaints in a timely manner.

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