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Managing teams in dangerous places—the self-destructor

A guest post by J.

If you’re a manager in the aid world whose role and team are based in the field (or a deployable, field-facing team based elsewhere), I’d be willing to bet that you have at least one self-destructor on your team. If you’re in a dangerous environment (high stress is dangerous, too. It doesn’t have to be gunshots and RPGs), you probably have more than one. You know who I mean. The self-destructor is the one who is online 24/7, who never seems to sleep, or who can never do anything on weekends because he or she is always working. Even when this person does go out socially or on R&R they’re immersed in their smartphones. This is the person whose mental and physical health will be obviously going down the toilet, but will still chronically accept the most difficult, dangerous, and generally likely to trigger self-destructive behavior jobs/missions/deployments. Senior leaders and other organizational stakeholders usually love self-destructor on your team because “he’s so responsive!” Organizational peers may even admire and complement the self-destructor for her self-destructive behavior: “She’s always working… she’s a machine!”

It can get ugly, too: The self-destructor can abuse substances (alcohol is the most common), which can get very bad for everyone in the team house very quickly; can throw tantrums over the smallest things; have quirky habits or personal rituals that pass the pale of innocuous and cross over into disruptive and counter-productive; or just be antisocial and difficult to work with. The self-destructor often expresses a dramatically inflated version of her or his contribution, while at the same time being very negative about everyone else—and in that sense the self-destructor is not a team player.

There’s a great deal that’s been written about where that self-destructive behavior comes from and the aid world experiences that commonly lead to it. There’s similarly been a lot written to help individual aid workers avoid falling into or find their ways out of a cycle of aid-world self-destruction. This is something that I’ve written repeatedly on in the past, in different ways. It’s also the main purpose of this blog, Mindfulnext. I’m not going to repeat or summarize any of that here. But as managers, how do we deal with the self-destructor(s) on our team?

Of course I don’t purport to be the end-all, be-all. But for what it’s worth, here are my go-tos:

The principle of shared responsibility. Something that I see many articulate and practice poorly is the principle that the health of the team as well as the individuals within it are shared responsibilities. Yes, as a leader/manager and representative of your organization, you have a responsibility to provide the best possible working environment, and also take an interest in the well-being of individuals on your team… up to a point. It’s important to understand and communicated well that individuals on your team also share those same responsibilities: the responsibility to contribute positively to the health of the team, as well as a responsibility to take care of themselves, individually. It is critical that you understand and are also able to put into concrete practice your duties as a manager in and around those often troublesome border regions where your responsibility for the well-being of individuals under your leadership leaves off and their individual responsibility kicks in.

Everything that follows below should be understood to interlock with this principle of shared responsibility.

Model healthy behavior. It starts with you. As the leader, YOU set the tone. You have your act together.You take care of yourself. You set your personal boundaries and maintain them. You can’t very well handle the self-destructor on your team if you’re headed that direction yourself (and I have seen few relief ops go as badly as quickly in real life as those lead by self-destructors).

Create a balanced environment. Now, extend healthy behavior to your team in the workplace. Set boundaries and make your organization respect them (sure, you might be the manager, but your organization is hounding your team for stuff pretty much 24/7). Run interference on those organizational demands where you can. Many leaders seem to think that this is just mechanically turning off their computers and walking out of the office at 5:00 p.m. And, sure, reasonable working hours are part of it. At the same time, though, you can declare the office closed at 5:00 all you like, but if your HQ is hounding your staff for things, they’ll just go to the team house and keep working.

Make sure organizational policies support a healthy, balanced work environment. Fight for R&R (yeah, yeah—nothing get the journalists or bloggers mad at us faster than R&R, but it’s essential. Don’t budge on R&R for your team). Work with your security officers to allow as much personal freedom to your staff as possible: lock-down or restricted movement only when necessary. When you can approve things that provide social outlets, do it. Don’t jerk your staff around about benefits or micromanage them. Sure, there’s crunch time, particularly at the beginning of a relief response, and sure you have to push your team hard. But know when to back off. On the workload piece, and especially the propensity to work long hours, the line I use with my team is something like, “I need you to find a sustainable pace.”

There is a great deal about both the context and the work demands of a relief op that inherently lends itself to self-destruction. But much of it can be mitigated effective through competent leadership.

And understand that doing any or all of the above in no way makes you special. You’re not your team’s sugar daddy (or sugar momma) because you approved their leave or declared a half-day off. As a manager this is all threshold “just doing your job” stuff.

Focus on the health of the “herd.” They’re all adults, there’s no one-size fits all approach, and everyone’s a work-in-progress. Don’t be too quick to declare dysfunction or demand conformity over issues that don’t matter. As I said in the previous post, aid workers are a quirky bunch. Value that! I find it helps to intermittently zoom out for a wider view: Keep perspective on the health of the “herd” (team dynamic). One quirky or eccentric individual doesn’t necessarily mean things are about to go sideways—if leadership and management is solid, interpersonal diversity can actually boost morale and performance within a team under stress.

Maybe another way of saying it is, understand that you’re not your employee’s parent. If you have that self-destructor who doesn’t respond to good leadership or take advantage legitimate opportunities for balance, up to a point there’s nothing you can do. When you have a team member like this, focus on the health of the herd.

Free pass. Everyone has a bad mission or deployment. It can (but doesn’t have to) be a personal meltdown. It can be just that something about it triggers something else. It can be a totally random confluence of time/place/issues, and your staff person just needs out. Don’t feed a destructive pattern. But when someone on my team needs that one free pass out of something, no questions asked, no judgement… they get it.

Recognize the danger signs. Obviously, there comes a point when your employee’s self-destructive behavior or habits get to the point that you really can no longer let them slide, give free passes, or value their diversity. Here are the danger signs that I look for and that usually precede management action:

  • Personal workplace performance. Self-destructors may often appear to be high-output. In my experience, though, this usually is either a) a false impression which falls apart under scrutiny, or b) is temporary—they pass a peak and performance starts to slip.
  • Effect on team dynamic. I have never seen an instance where the self-destructor did not eventually have a negative effect on the overall team (the health of the “herd”).
  • Inappropriate conduct. In some cases self-destructors turn to bad behavior. I’ve seen this range from general disruption, being rude or disrespectful, verbally abusive, all the way over to outright physical assault, fraud, and sexual harassment.
  • Frequent flyers. Any of the above on a repeat basis. The free pass is all good and well, but when someone is having the same issue deployment and deployment, mission after mission, it’s probably time to put a stop to it.


Obviously your organizations’ policies have an affect on your range of options, here, and in some cases local culture may play a role as well. In any case, these four things represent my no-go areas when it comes to the self-destructors on my team. Which leads to…

Know when to take the hard decision, and take it. It is amazing how squishy the above four things can be. NGOs are famously bad at performance management, and so it can be frustratingly difficult to pin down in concrete terms when someone is simply not doing their job. Effect on team dynamic is rarely straightforward, and always subjective. Even the most egregious inappropriate conduct—what feels in email like a textbook violation—has a way of disintegrating under the lens of situation and context. Frequent flyers become expert at crafting unique backstories to explain their history of issues, and the patterns can be all but impossible to see until you’ve witnessed it up close, in person. All to say, that despite how clear-cut it things may seem, climatic situations involving self-destructors on your team almost always come down to a judgement call—your judgement.

Depending on the exact issues, your organization’s policies, The Code of Conduct, donor regulations and host country laws, may apply and so help shape your decision. I’m not saying that the action you take has to always be termination or in some other way removing the person from your team. There are nuances and intermediate stages there, too. But at some point the health of your programme portfolio, the health of your team, the health of your employee, and perhaps the health and safety of those you say you’re there to help will depend on you. Know when to take the hard decision, and then actually do take it.


security in aidJ. – Aid worker since 1991. Aid blogger since 2006. Author of several humanitarian novels. Formerly blogged as “J.” at “Tales From the Hood”. Now blogs at “AidSpeak” and publishes under his own indie-label, Evil Genius Publishing.





One Response to Managing teams in dangerous places—the self-destructor

  1. Des molloy says:

    Nice one, Alexandra,
    As a DDR guy for the past 13 years , this rings home. I think I was that guy in Haiti in 2007. Realising that it was time to quit saved me… and probably many of my staff.
    I’ll be following your writing from now on.

    Keep trucking,


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