This comment came from a reader after my post on profanity in the workplace. While I did write a follow-up piece on profanity (with the help of Jon Hyman), I thought the topic of disruptive behavior during training bears some discussion.
I’m a team building consultant and this issue often arises (i.e. profanity during workshops). Is profanity something a group can set a ground rule about? Or does it fall under the category of being ‘respectful’ to one another?
Verbal and written communications are very different and can cause enormous misunderstandings and conflict. I imagine profanity is problematic no matter where it shows up. So the question becomes: Who decides the rules regarding certain words or expressions that are forbidden during work events?
Honestly, I don’t recall ever having profanity get so out of control that it negatively impacted the session. So for this reader, I wanted to get some additional insight. I asked Renie McClay, global learning consultant and author of the book “10 Steps to Successful Teams” to share her expertise.
Renie, while neither of us has experienced a session where profanity has gone out of control; we’ve both been exposed to challenging participants. In your experience, if someone’s language or actions were starting making the group feel uncomfortable, what would you do?
[Renie] I would immediately ask for a ‘PG rating’ on language and behavior. ‘Let’s keep things PG.’ PG refers to the movie rating system and most people can relate to that. I have heard people request PG-13, but in this case PG might be better. This means some profanity is tolerated, but not the big stuff.
If a G rating is preferred, this is how it is described for motion pictures: ‘nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters.’
This initial approach means no one in particular is being called out.
If the informal “let’s keep the convo PG” doesn’t resolve the situation, is there anything else a trainer can do?
[Renie] After this discussion, it may be necessary for a leader or sponsor to share their expectations for the team. If it’s a work team, the manager should be setting the bar and telling their staff what is ‘acceptable’.
To paraphrase something from my book, “10 Steps to Successful Teams” – embrace respect. It is crucial to create a value system to respect differences, in this case some people like crude language and others do not. Create a team mission statement that includes the word ‘respect’.
If these two steps don’t work, then having a private conversation with individuals will be necessary.
Have you ever had to ask someone to leave training because they were being disruptive? I’m trying to think back over the years and I don’t recall ever having to do that.
[Renie] I’ve had private conversations with people to change behavior. After these happened, changes were made. On rare occasions, a conversation had to happen with the manager. In each case, they were young new hires and needed to be told what acceptable behavior looked like.
I think the reader’s note brings up a good point about training ground rules. Do you have a standard set of ground rules that you use for training sessions? If so, would you share them?
[Renie] Keep in mind some groups don’t need ground rules because they’re accustomed to working together. In those cases, laying down ground rules just wastes time.
But there are some situations where ground rules might be helpful: new employees, global or non-native speakers in the audience, diverse groups not used to attending training, or diversity training where sensitive topics may come up.
For training in those environments, I would share some of my own ground rules and ask for group acceptance. I would include in that list ‘respectful language and treatment’ of others. Typically, I don’t use ground rules regularly and don’t have anything scripted. If there was a situation that demanded it (like maybe diversity training), I would create something.
Other topics that can be included in a list of ground rules are break times (we will start when we say we will), distractions (leave the room if you need to talk or text) and others (use respectful language and keep sensitive info confidential).
When you use ground rules, do groups ever add, amend or delete them?
[Renie] If you’re working with a group on a regular basis, it is possible to edit ground rules as the team evolves. There can also be company, leader or manager mandated rules.
As a workshop facilitator, I will ask for respectful language – even if the work team tolerates it well outside of the workshop. An occasional outburst of something mild I do not mind. But if it gets to be too much, I will address it. In a workshop, you want to avoid distractions.
I know there are times when a participant’s behavior can be frustrating. But I’ve also found that sometimes, when a participant pushes back on a discussion, it can be valuable. It does require quick thinking and facilitating the conversation in a professional manner.