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The Phantom Pooper: A Story from the Frontline of Workplace Conflict

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

Image by mads-schmidt-rasmussen @ unsplash

I share this story with great trepidation; not only because of its scatological nature, but because I fear it might leave my valued readers traumatized.

However, some stories simply beg to be told lest we fail to learn from them.

No, the phantom pooper is not the world’s worst superhero. The phantom pooper is a real person, just like me or you, with a message for the world.
That message is, when it comes to workplace conflict, you can only bottle things up for so long. Eventually, everything comes out.

Let me explain.

I recently had an impromptu consultation with an experienced office manager. She oversees a large unit of staff within a vast and highly bureaucratic organization. This organization oversees a worldwide logistics and supply chain for advanced technology components.

The complexity of this system is incredible. Its success requires intensive coordination between engineers, financial experts, and an international sales and requisitioning force. This manager’s staff includes a wide array of very talented people.

Everything seemed to be going great this year. Then, someone pooped on a table.

They also pooped in the lounge, in a hallway, and in a recently renovated staff room. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

I responded incredulously to her, “Surely, there is something else at work here? Maybe, you have a staff member with a medical issue of some kind? Someone who cannot control their bowels and is too embarrassed to tell anyone?”

Oh, no…

She assured me that all of the aforementioned pooping was quite deliberate. After learning the intimate details of each instance, it was clear that the phantom pooper was being very intentional in their choice of setting and strategic placement of each enigmatic deposit.

I have heard many harrowing stories in my many years mentoring leaders, but this one had a haunting quality all of its own.

Their only response to date was to invest in expanded video monitoring capabilities within their home offices, in hopes of catching this rogue in the act.

She asked me if I had any advice about what to do next.

I feared that in my old age, this story would torment me like an aging detective’s unsolved cold-case. I needed to formulate a lesson, action plan, or something worthwhile from this tale, not only for her, but also for my future peace of mind.

Here’s what we discussed.

First, tempting though it may be, I suggested that we not focus on the “who-done-it” aspect. She clearly had no idea who, from the hundreds of staff in the building, might do such a thing. If she did, they wouldn’t be focusing on installing more video monitoring equipment in staff common areas.

The reality is, she might never discover the true identity of the phantom pooper. Instead, we focused on the phantom’s message as well as preventative actions that the manager could control and take immediately.

After some discussion, it was clear that this was really a manifestation of a much deeper organization-wide issue. In this large and sprawling organization is was easy to become invisible and get lost in the expansiveness.

Though very successful as a whole, there was a very tangible Borg-like quality to her descriptions of their workplace culture.

The organizational mission and deliverables were very clear. However, I doubt that any one individual felt very important.

When people feel invisible and unimportant, they will act out. Admittedly, pooping on the magazines in the staff lounge is a bit extreme, but it does prove the point.

All humans have a basic desire to feel connected, to have voice, and to feel like what they do matters and impacts the world around them. This requires more than just telling staff at meetings that you appreciate their hard work and asking them to give themselves a round of applause once a quarter.

Strong leaders make a regular habit of reflecting and sharing with each individual person they directly supervise how and why their contributions and voice are valued by the organization. It makes no difference whether that staff member is a janitor or a vice president. The personal needs and the conversation look exactly the same.

To prevent the next phantom, she and other unit managers need to take a much more personal approach to supervision. If a colleague is so upset about something that they have literally started to crap on the company, it’s safe to assume that these concerns (and potentially aberrant personalities) can be identified earlier.

I recommend that leaders use the following questions as a general format for this type of supervision:

  • How are you? (meaning, the staff member personally)

  • How are we? (meaning, your relationship with the staff member)

  • What would you like to talk about today? (then share what you would like to talk about today to set the full agenda for the conversation)

  • Is there anything else I need to know (or that you/we need to talk about)? (use this a catch-all ending for the conversation)

Allow for silence and time to think in response to these questions. Gradually, but persistently, push staff to move beyond minimal and surface-level responses. You want to actively surface problems and challenges, not avoid them.

Model the language and appropriate risk-taking by answering the questions yourself. Over time, expect staff to come to supervision ready to answer these questions with depth and clarity. Be prepared to really listen.

Feel free to talk about your supply-chain performance measures, the quarterly budget, or whatever else is important that day. However, the above (or similar) questions should be asked during every supervision meeting and by every leader.

This won’t guarantee that a colleague will never go off the rails, but it does make it more likely you’ll see the red flags and be able to intervene before they do.

Lastly, this organization had clear and explicit procedures for filing grievances, which people used prodigiously.

An effective and fair grievance procedure has its advantages, but it offers very little in the moment to someone who is so upset, mad, or angry, that they are ready to drop a deuce on your desk.

In addition to an understanding of the grievance procedure, make sure staff know what to do, and who to talk to when they or others are highly emotional. If you want to prevent bizarre behavior and unpredictable outbursts, there must be clear and readily available outlets for strong emotion.

Don’t miss the opportunity to lead and grow by delegating this to the HR department. Whenever possible, lead these interactions directly within the context of your team. Then you can refer staff to other specialized supports as needed.

In addition to the supervision framework above, consider using versions these same questions in larger staff meetings. Focus on the questions, “How are you?”, “How are we?”, and “Is there anything happening in the team that we need to talk about?” as a way to surface tensions and other issues in the group.

Staff should know and trust that every team meeting and personal supervision will include some version of these questions.

This will help exorcise would-be phantoms from your workplace. It will also ensure that when something freaky does go down, you’ll have a pretty good idea whose behind is behind it.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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