Understanding the
motivations of agitators is not too difficult if you look at their behavior and
then ask yourself why they are behaving that way. More to the point, what do
they get out of it? Their motivations are in the payoff or what they get.

agitator will say anything no matter who gets hurt or feels badly. What does
the player get? He gets a cheap moment in the spotlight, even if it is at the
expense of a co-worker. Just keep in mind that the player will say anything
about anyone, including you.   The
agitator also gets his kicks from complaining. 
He is again in the spotlight. Of course, there is always a little more
power in that position.

The player makes
things seem bad, people seem incompetent, and everything appears worse than it
is. The player gets attention, gets a little more power for a little while, and
is seen as someone who is in the know and on top of things. Experienced players
do this in a way that is additive over time. They also take care not to overdo
it. They are very good at not giving away their game.

Given the
behavior, its varieties and its motivations, what does counter play look like?
Listen to what the agitator has to say and then say, “You are a trip. You
can find more ways to look at things negatively than anyone I know.” The
strategy is to call the player on his behavior and make it clear that you have
no interest in what he says. There is no power reinforcement for the behavior.

In another example,
a player is agitating. He says something negative about someone. The classy
response is, “I am surprised to hear you say that. I do not think it is
true.” The player will almost always press on with, “It is true! I .
. ..” He goes on to say some more negative things.

Your response is,
“You probably would describe the tooth fairy as a thief.” Now comes
the real trick. No matter what the player says next, do not respond. The game
is over.

As with most
people who drive you up the wall, the trick to counter play with agitators is
to do what needs to be done and then quit. Players of any type or variety can
only play with people who will play. For agitators, just be sure they get
minimal attention and no additional power or status from you. Quietly and calmly
call them on their behavior and then let it go. When others do not play, the
game gradually stops.

Also when
agitating gets started in a group, it tends to be contagious. The play is hard
to resist. People who just enjoy small talk – almost always about other people
who are not there – inadvertently pick up the behavior. The play becomes a way
to get status and attention in the group. It works for the agitator so why not
for others?

Given the
contagion virility of the game, it is important to stop it as quickly and
completely as possible.

Locate the most
vocal agitator and then do two things. First, privately ask him to tell you
what problems he sees or what concerns he has. If necessary, candidly share
with him what you have learned he is saying or complaining about. Once the
issues are on the table, you and he can go into a problem solving mode.

Next, and this is
the key, tell him that his agitating behavior is unacceptable. Let him know
that you are always available to work on problems but will not tolerate
agitating. He will undoubtedly act shocked and deny the behavior. Nonetheless,
make your point and do not argue with him.

If necessary and
after giving problem solving a chance, say to the player, “This behavior
must stop. If not, I will call a meeting of the group. At that time, I will
again say to you that your destructive behavior must stop. I also will caution
your associates not to follow your example.”

This is usually
enough. You must not be bluffing, though. It may be necessary for you to follow
through, especially with dyed-in-the-wool agitators.