Eliminating the Organizational Cancer of Bullying

Bullying: Head it off at the Pass

In organizations, some patterns of behavior appear stubboringly resistant to change. Despite a plethora of training programmes and more policies than the EU has issued on bendy carrots, bullying and harassment remain prevalent in the workplace. Why is this the case?

Defining Bullying: The concept itself is somewhat elusive.  Those who argue that bullying is on the rise, see this as an example of creeping managerialism, with the ruling classes being out of control. During a recession people can’t just leave their job and remain trapped in a dysfunctional relationship – like a violent marriage where one partner cannot see a way out (this is not a flight of fancy; in one survey in the UK, 6% of people reported being physically assaulted at work over the past 2 years). During a recession, a renewed push for performance across all organizations, allows ‘Bad Managers’ a cast-iron excuse to exert inappropriate pressure on staff. Those on the opposite side of the debate see accusations of bullying as being the new defense for underperformance. It is legitimate to request staff to perform their job to a high standard and managers don’t need to be apologetic about this. In a pressurized environment, requests to perform at a higher level are being mislabeled as bullying by lazy, non-compliant employees. Where is the ‘truth’ in the above?

Redefining the Issue: One helpful idea is to completely abandon the label ‘bullying’ and to think about this as ill treatment at work. It’s not just changing the title for the sake of coming up with a new form words. In my experience, many people won’t even discuss being bullied as the term itself has negative connotations for their self-image (linking back to the idea of being bullied at school, to the notion that they have somehow ‘brought it on themselves’, they don’t like being classified as a victim etc.). In contrast, people are more likely to admit to being ill-treated rather than being bullied. But would this simply lead to ‘more claims being made’ and therefore be counterproductive? I don’t think so.

Managerial Response: Moving to this new language makes it much easier to approach a manager whose behavior may be out of kilter. Labeling a manager as a bully provokes an almost automatically negative reaction. The term is black Vs. white (you are a bully or you are not a bully). Bullying investigations often lead managers to robustly ‘defend’ their behavior rather than to consider that they might actually have stepped over the line. An investigation process which uses a legal (Win: Lose) model is particularly unhelpful to future workplace relations. Those who ‘lose’ the case often still feel that they were right and it can damage workplace relations for many years, sometimes forever. Sometimes the outcome can be ‘inconclusive’ – seriously straining relationships for both parties 9and their respective supporters).

Work Practices: Rather than searching for ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’ it is more helpful to unpack the specific work practices, which are causing the problem. These are often reported as unmanageable workloads, continual monitoring, unfair treatment (e.g. in selection for a promotion) or just having your viewpoint completely ignored. Using these labels makes inappropriate behavior discussible –rather than automatically defensible – the first step towards finding a cure.

Single Incidents: It is generally accepted that a single incidence of bad behavior (e.g. a manager losing their temper and shouting at an employee) does not constitute bullying. Normally a simple apology is the way forward here. Ongoing bullying tends to occur most where a pattern of incivility or humiliation is established, where people are treated in a rude of disrespectful way, where the workplace is too intense or where the needs of the organization always predominate over the needs of the staff i.e. it becomes the cultural norm in the organization.

The Cure: There is no magic bullet answer here. The solution is a jigsaw of elements (a) Having a policy on dignity and respect at work in which the legitimate expectations of managers and staff is made clear (with behavioral examples given) is a good starting point (b) Developing a ‘how’ element in the performance appraisal process (along with what has been achieved, this measures the methods used by individual managers) (c) Providing training, especially to people new to the managerial role (d) Having the guts to confront managers who overstep the line has to be balanced alongside tackling employee underperformace (if you just ‘call’ the managers on poor behavior, they will turn a blind eye to underperformance in their area) (e) Finally, when incidents arise (and they will arise), using a problem-solving approach rather than defaulting to the legal (adversarial) investigative model is the way forward. It’s quicker, cheaper and has a much stronger likelihood of the relationships being ‘patched’ in a way, which leads to future reconciliation. Robotic bulling investigations, in my view, have zero positive upside – not great for a process which typically costs north of €30K and can be a lot more expensive if they go ‘nuclear’ (fully legal).

Normal Conflict: Assuming that you had all of the above in place, can ill-treatment be completely eliminated in your organization? Probably not, but it can be significantly reduced with upsides around the time and expense dedicated to this area. More importantly, it helps you to develop an organization where dignity at work is the norm and where legitimate differences of opinion can be worked through and resolved. When two people live at home under one roof, conflict is part of the mix. When you put hundreds or even thousands of people ‘under one roof’, it’s not possible to completely eliminate conflict. But it is possible to manage this in a way where conflicts can be minimized and the legitimate rights of both managers and staff can be recognized. Now, there’s a thought for the week.

Paul Mooney PS On a lighter note... The police stop an elderly man around 2 a.m. He is asked where he’s going at this time of night.The man replies: “I am on my way to a lecture about alcohol abuse and the effects it has on the human body, as well as smoking and staying out late.” The officer then asks, “Really? Who is giving that lecture at this time of night?” The man replies: “That would be my wife.”


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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