Is There A Petulant Child In Your Organization?

Our workplaces are full of interesting people. Some are enthusiastic, some are thoughtful, some are quirky and others are hard charging. We can also experience the petulant child, who at times can be any of those other types of people, but watch out if things do not go their way. Being petulant is defined as “having or showing the attitude of people who become angry and annoyed when they do not get what they want.” Does that ever happen on your team or in your organization?

We often see and expect this type of behavior in children when they do not get their way, seemingly most often in grocery stores near the candy display. That might be considered normal behavior for a five year old. What about those adults who pout or fly off the handle when they do not get their way or when someone disagrees with them? When they experience adversity, off they go …. on an attack, on a pout or to the nearest water cooler or wherever they can find a sympathetic ear to complain to about the perceived injustice. Boo Hoo!


Petulant behavior differs from the occasional irritable, angry, stressed, frustrated or anxious outbursts. It is often considered insolent and rude. The root cause of petulant behavior in adults is a lack of self-awareness, impulse control and self-management. These adults seem to have expectations that they should be catered to, no matter the inconvenience to others. Like a petulant child, these adults defend or excuse their actions rather than take responsibility or hold themselves accountable. They often perceive themselves as some sort of victim or feel that their behavior is warranted given the circumstance. We have seen this recently on the political and the national sports scene.

The petulant child takes up a tremendous amount of time and energy, often sucking the energy right out of the room. They also create a dysfunctional dynamic in teams and organizations, wearing out the people who have to interface with them. They tend to be thinned skinned and have a strong need to be right, regardless of facts. I have watched this type of behavior shut down effective team dynamics because people grow weary of having to endure the tantrums. Other team members go underground or disengage to avoid the drama.

Behavior standards have reached new lows. When most of us see petulant behavior we can easily identify it as being inappropriate or abnormal, yet it often gets tolerated and in some cases even celebrated. In recent years it seems that this type of behavior is defended, justified or a minimum, accepted. Why do you suppose that is the case? Why will most people do little to address that type of behavior, particularly in the workplace? Have we become complacent or just worn out? Is this the result of too much reality TV?

Let’s face it; we can all have those moments when we lose touch with our ability to manage our response to a situation or circumstances. That is life. Hopefully, that does not happen in such a way that it becomes a career or relationship limiting move. The more self-awareness and behavioral intelligence we have the better our chances of managing those outbursts before they cost us personally or professionally.

Leaders are often at a loss as to how to handle these people. It is even more challenging and difficult when the leader is the petulant one. Human behavior can be complex and intimidating. Many leaders feel that they may make the situation worse tackling it head on or because of the unpredictable nature of a petulant child. A leader may avoid taking action because they fear that unknown reaction or because the petulant child is a high performer that the organization does not want to lose. Unfortunately, defending, excusing or ignoring petulant behavior will only encourage more of it and tell others on a team that it is acceptable. When leaders do not address this type of behavior in a consistent and timely manner it can cost them good people who wind up leaving for more drama free environments.

Some helpful tips:

  • Petulant behavior will not go away unless it is addressed in a straightforward manner. Set clear boundaries and expectation. Wait to do this until after the tantrum has passed. You cannot reason with someone who is being unreasonable. Be firm yet fair in your approach.
  • Be consistent in enforcing those boundaries and if possible, tie them to organizational policies or performance evaluations. This will provide an opportunity to get buy- in from the individual whose behavior you are trying to modify. Follow this up with monthly or quarterly meetings to track progress, provide encouragement and course corrections if needed.
  • Develop your knowledge or competencies to enhance your people management skills. It is a must for any effective leader. This will help build confidence. Learning how to manage a variety of people is a skill. Like anything in life, it takes practice. There are a number of resources to tap into, whether it is taking workshops, getting some coaching, or bringing in someone to work with you and your team.

Petulant children in the workplace do need to be feared nor avoided. With skill development and practice, it is possible to support them to develop greater self-awareness, impulse control and self-management.  Please share your experiences or comments with us.

Sue Kenfield specializes in transforming dysfunctional human dynamics within organizations, communities and with individuals. We empower people and organizations to maximize their success by improving leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills. which elevates performance, minimizes turnover and improves the bottom line through our leadership and team development, conflict management, behavioral intelligence and executive coaching programs. Contact us to learn more.

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