ARE YOU A WORKPLACE BULLY? AND, IF YOU ARE, WHO WOULD TELL YOU?
And, if you are, who would tell you?
Are you a bully? Chances are if your behaviour is abrasive, aggressive or intimidating, you probably don’t even realise it. And the higher you rise in an organisation the harder it is to get that trusted, timely feedback. By Annie Gray.
Are you a bully? Chances are if your behaviour is abrasive, aggressive or intimidating, you probably don't even realise it. And the higher you rise in an organisation the harder it is to get that trusted, timely feedback.
E xecutive leadership coach and a facilitator specialising in workplace conflict, Yvonne Treen of Ripasso Group, has some comforting words for the bullies amongst us.
She says 99 percent of the time people with abrasive behaviour have good intentions, they are not aware of the effect they are having and they are not acting in a malevolent way. It’s about their behaviour decisions.
And these people are often surprised and distressed when told of the workplace perceptions about them.
While there is plenty of literature defining different types of bullying behaviour, Treen disagrees with this approach. She says that labelling someone a bully as though it is a clinical psychological fact is the wrong way to go. She sees it as more responsible to discuss someone’s abrasive behaviour or conduct and the impact of that behaviour on the person they are targeting.
She says often the person with the abrasive behaviour has high standards and drives themselves just as hard as they drive their target, or the person they are bullying. But they are driving them to perform in ways that is not helpful to that target person.
“A common assumption about an abrasive leader is that they are aware of their behaviour. People assume their behaviour is malevolent and once a bully always a bully – which are all common misconceptions.”
In her experience across many workplaces someone with abrasive behaviour does not have very high emotional intelligence. “If you can’t read yourself very well you tend not to be able to read other people as well. They do not have a very sophisticated awareness but there can be a long term impact of their abrasive behaviour on the person they are targeting.”
The abrasive behaviour comes from being concerned about doing things properly. These people have a limited tool box for getting things done.
But, she says, they can work through a rehabilitation programme and intensive coaching programmes which get them to see what other people see of their
behaviour. “They are often really surprised and distressed.”
So are there CEOs who could be termed bullies?
Treen says if you asked around everybody can talk about the foibles of their CEO.
“My question for those at CE level is, who gives them feedback? Even if you have standard 360 degree assessments and engagement surveys, abrasive behaviour is granular – it’s often in the tone of voice, body language, eye contact.
“The higher up the leadership tree the less likely the person is to get frank and timely feedback, which can be problematic for CEOs.”
She adds that sometimes it can be quite a small behaviour that is seen as abrasive because it is magnified by the position the leader holds.
One senior manager she worked with had the reputation of being a cold fish, somewhat arrogant and uncaring. But some of it arose from the fact he went to work earlier than everyone else and didn’t do the meet and greet when staff arrived (the social glue). So he’d come out of his office already well into the day’s work and somewhat preoccupied with what he had to do. Without making any social connection with his staff he was seen as distant, remote and arrogant. So what is a leader to do? Treen says if you don’t have a high trust relationship internally asking for feedback might not get you any real answers.
“Who in your organisation is not afraid to give you feedback? If you don’t have someone you may need to go outside to find someone to ask the question of.
“We are all a work in progress … and if you don’t ask the question, how do you know you are fine? What are people saying about you when they have left the organisation? What are your direct reports saying?"
She says at CE level a leader may not know how they are perceived.
It’s important to remember that “we measure ourselves by our intent and we measure others by their behaviour”.
Leaders can be mortified at being seen as abrasive and it can be a defining moment for them. “The point I would make is that as a CEO you deserve to know.”
Not all interventions work – such as sending someone on a communications course and hoping they will change, or providing counselling without getting information about what others find problematic about their behaviour. One general manager she worked with had fallen out with his/her boss very badly. The CEO put the GM forward for counselling but their key takeout from this was that “I was a bit of a bully, but so was my boss.” The GM’s behaviour did not change because it was not explicitly addressed and this person did not take ownership.
So what defines bullying behaviour? Dr Bevan Catley, associate professor in the Healthy Work Group in the School of Management at Massey Business School says there are lots of terms that float about such as bullying, harassment, abuse, workplace aggression. But guidelines from Worksafe New Zealand give the definition as: “Workplace bullying is: repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that can lead to physical or psychological harm.”
Catley says the word ‘repeated’ is at the crux of what bullying is compared to other workplace issues. He thinks there is a much better understanding in terms of awareness and the clarity of the definition in the guidelines from Worksafe is helpful.
And workplace bullying is no small issue. Recent research by Diversity Works New Zealand says that bullying and harassment are rated as important issues in more than a third of New Zealand workplaces. Almost 36 percent of respondents to an April New Zealand Diversity Survey identified bullying and harassment as a significant issue, up from 26 percent in October 2016.
Diversity Works chief executive Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie says organisations across New Zealand are becoming more aware of the business benefits of creating an inclusive workplace culture, but allowing bullying and harassment to continue unchecked will undermine their efforts in this area, she says.
Just under 30 percent of respondents to the Diversity Survey reported that their organisation had recorded incidents of bullying and harassment in the past 12 months. Reporting occurred more frequently in public-sector organisations (37 percent) compared with 23 percent in private-sector workplaces. Large organisations were more likely to have recorded incidents (45 percent) than medium-sized (38 percent) or small organisations (nine percent).
In turn Catley says a team of researchers from Massey University’s Healthy Work Group along with colleagues from Waikato, Auckland and AUT examined the prevalence of bullying in New Zealand and in a 2011 study of 1700 employees drawn from four industry sectors, almost 18 percent met the definition of being bullied at work. In a later 2016 study of 800 respondents drawn from the general working population, 15 percent met the definition.
Worksafe New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines highlight a bevy of personal and task related attacks that are examples of bullying behaviour such as belittling remarks; undermining integrity; lies being told; judgment questioned; opinions marginalised. Or the person might be given unachievable tasks; impossible deadlines; unmanageable workloads; meaningless tasks. They might be ignored or information might be withheld; messages not be passed on and calls not returned. See www.worksafe.govt.nz.
Treen says she is usually called in to an organisation because a manager’s behaviour has been problematic for some time and/or because someone has made a formal complaint.
In most cases the organisation already knows about this person but typically they choose not to do something without a complaint being laid.
One person she worked with had been employed to improve a team's results and would go into the office all business, asking about KPIs and saying the team’s results
“Leaders can be mortified by being seen as abrasive and it can be a defining moment for them.”
were not good enough.
People found him unpleasant to work with and when he was relayed this feedback he was shocked. His manager’s brief was to improve the results as a matter of urgency and address non-performance.
“When he saw the impact of his threatening leadership style and realised people disliked him, were distressed by him and fearful of him he was ready and able to change that behaviour.”
She agrees that perhaps there a few people who are a nasty piece of work as such, but the bulk of people who have abrasive conduct are emotionally unaware and while their tactics may get results in the short term, it can cause long term damage.
But the attributes of some of these abrasive managers can also make them valuable employees in that they drive themselves and have a high work ethic and high performance. So some organisations look the other way but fail to consider the impact on the overall workplace culture. The problems happen when they get promoted without training or support and don’t learn other strategies to lead their teams.
When she presents to organisations on bullying and harassment issues, everyone nods because they all know someone in their organisation who is abrasive or they have left an organisation because of it.
Treen originally worked in industrial relations and having being promoted internally without any coaching or mentoring she can see a time, at one stage, when she “wasn’t a particularly nice manager”.
If there are workplace issues due to a leader’s abrasive behaviour, Treen believes informal workplace mediation or workplace conferencing are alternatives to formal investigations or disciplinary action. This is particularly useful in those instances where nobody wants to make a formal complaint but everyone knows there is an issue.
She says organisations need to address bad behaviour at an early stage before the it rumbles along for a couple of years. They often know there is a problem. “What is needed is for behaviour change to occur and policies and reporting procedures do not make that sort of change.”
What you accept is what you approve of. She refers to a case where the employee went for advice about how to handle a person in another team who was very aggressive and was told to only approach them when that person was in a good mood. “That’s classic. Everyone knows what they are like, but the organisation is accepting and approving of that bad behaviour."
Bullying can have long term consequences if an organisation doesn’t take action – it is known that in extreme cases targets can end up with something akin to post traumatic stress disorder as a result of long term exposure to workplace bullying or harassment. Organisations have a duty of care to identify and address this.
Asked about bullying by CEOs, Bevan Catley at Massey says he likes to assume that one of the skills of people in senior management positions is self-awareness. He sees self-reflection of your leadership style as a key competence of senior managers.
“The ultimate test is: Would I want to be treated like that?”
He says while there is no New Zealand research on CEO level bullying, it is pretty clear it can happen at any level, whether supervisor to supervisor, peer to peer, customers to employer – whereever you have people, so thus there are bound to be some CEOS who operate as bullies.
Catley said problems across an organisation stem from businesses not taking complaints or concerns seriously and the behaviour continues and is turned into something more serious which might result in a personal grievance claim.
And bullying can be very subtle. His advice to anyone in that position is to document everything and establish a pattern of unreasonable behaviour.
So what can happen? You name it, says Catley, “never underestimate people’s ability to be cruel and unkind”.
He points to Victoria’s 2011 antibullying legislation, known as Brodie’s Law, which made serious bullying a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail. The law was introduced after the tragic suicide of a young woman, Brodie Panlock, who was subjected to relentless bullying in her workplace.
While there are a good number of cases in the employment court, Catley believes these may be the tip of the iceberg and many go through mediation and are settled out of court.
So what is a CEO to do to prevent bullying in the workplace?
Catley says get your workplace culture right so bad behaviours will not be tolerated. You need a culture of fairness and of rewarding good behaviour. If your organisation is healthy there will not be the opportunity to bully.
He says you need a clear framework where behaviour expectations are clear, the way behaviour is reinforced is consistent and all parts of systems are in alignment so you are rewarding desirable behaviour.
Cassidy-Mackenzie told Management she is not surprised at their survey results noting that now procedures are there for bullying and harassment it is easier for people to report it. It’s not just that it’s a legal requirement, but people are coming forward now. In the past they ignored the bullying or waited for it to pass, now they know they want a safe environment to work.
“From our perspective, we are trying to work for an inclusive environment where people can be their whole self and this highlights issues around bullying.
“Companies are realising they have to create a more inclusive environment to get access to this talent pool. They have to be smarter about how they are building an inclusive environment and a safe place to work. They have strategies around processes that staff can use to report and feed into.”
She says five years ago Diversity Works New Zealand offered workshops on harassment but nobody registered. But when they offered a customised workshop in an organisation’s office, there was a very good uptake. Nobody wanted anyone else to know that their organisation had a problem in this area.
Today they have very good uptake for their regular bullying and harassment workshops.
“The higher up the leadership tree the less likely the person is to get frank and timely feedback.”