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Earlier today I had the opportunity to catch up with a colleague I hadn’t seen for some time. Our Skype conversation wasn’t purely one of old friends getting reacquainted with personal news - important although that is - it was as a result of a request for input and advice regarding a client interested in developing means to address workplace bullying. In particular, as a result of some recent events, how the client could manage bullying at work effectively. There is no question that bullying at work is a significant drain on creativity, time, productivity, and effective relationships. Anyone who disagrees, I would respectfully suggest, likely has bullying tendencies themselves, has never experienced bullying personally, or has become desensitised to cultural norms around them that have developed over the course of their tenure. Efforts to remove and manage workplace bullying are performance multipliers rather than compliance requirements.


Managing workplace bullying is a vast and complex topic enmeshed within subjective personal experience, organisational cultural norms (e.g. is it OK or not OK to show weakness or difficulty here?), time, the strength of collegial relationships, personality (e.g. why does it bother me and not anyone else?), and national cultural differences (e.g. whether speaking up against someone in authority is appropriate or seen as rude and disrespectful). It is this complexity that is often overlooked and only becomes apparent to observers once significant time has passed, acute coping mechanisms used to tolerate the intolerable have become less effective, and either a formal complaint or significant behavioural reaction to a catalysing incident becomes apparent to those not directly involved in what has been developing over time. Breaking this complexity down is difficult but important particularly if there is a desire by a team to intervene earlier rather than latter in an evolving conflict, a desire by an organisation to be in the best position to limit fall out from a continuing clash, and/or a desire by a senior management team or human resource professional to limit strategic loss of knowledge and skills as a result of an entrenched and apparently unresolvable gulf in perspective between individuals in dispute


So, to keep things simple, after two decades working in the workplace conflict field in companies big and small, public and private, and across industry groups here are some of the key lessons I have learned that, if mastered and implemented well, will definitely assist any organisation or team manage bullying and other forms of conflict as effectively as reasonably possible


Early conversations. I rarely put tips in order of importance because, let’s face it, it can be very hard to justify the order decided but in this case early conversations are by far the number one piece of advice by a long way. The opportunity to clarify expectations, deal with issues when they are merely embers rather than a raging inferno, being approachable, provide an outlet for frustration and a listening ear, and managing assumptions are critical. Too often I have come across situations that, for want of an earlier conversation would have been resolved or, at the very least, significantly lessened. This, of course, requires the necessary soft communication skills, emotional intelligence, and an environment that rewards and supports managing relationships pro-actively (coaching, mentoring, part of our culture)


Define bullying as clearly as possible. There is a lot of grey area when it comes to workplace bullying, understandably so given the subjective nature of interpretation of intent and impact. But there is also a lot of black and white that can clarify regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable and, just as importantly, why in the context of the specific work people do, the manner in which interaction takes place and disagreement is managed, and the desired culture the employer wants to promote. The rationale for what is acceptable and not in the workplace is important as it provides a mandate for change that goes beyond personal opinion and sensitivity. Provide behavioural examples and guidelines that assist education, give confidence, and assist communication decision-making. Just because someone feels uncomfortable or doesn’t like a message, for example, is not on its own evidence of workplace bullying


Establish a threshold for action. At what point can it be expected that action will be taken, and why? What are the options available? Where does the responsibility lie for action between employee and employer, and how can barriers for effective action be reduced to resolve significant conflict or allegations of significant harm? It may, hypothetically, be a formal written complaint, it may be when a manager or other duly authorised officer is approached in confidence, it may be as a result of an overt argument showing specific characteristics of threat and/or intimidation, or any other threshold indicator. Make this threshold clear, train for and support subsequent interventions, and resource a process that is timely, confidential, and seen to be independent and fair. An important component is to provide opportunity for an issue to be actively managed whether a formal complaint is received or not. Too often a formal complaint is believed to be a minimum threshold for action when it should be a supplement to more discrete (or sometimes quite overt) monitoring and measures to address an issue that have already been taken


Don’t be afraid to talk about it, even as a query or point of discussion. Workplace bullying is not a taboo subject or in the ‘too hard’ box. It’s in the uncomfortable box and not providing a mechanism to disclose, discuss and inquire makes it much harder when beliefs become more entrenched as impact escalates. Bullying is very context dependent, and awareness of that context is an important factor for people to consider. It is a real and tangible outcome of behaviour that passes the ‘reasonable’ test as to what constitutes harm – that it would be expected another group of reasonable individuals, all factors being equal, would also likely find a behaviour unduly and unjustifiably harmful. Most of the time such behaviour will cause offense but not everything we find personally offensive, intimidating, or we are in disagreement with constitutes bullying. There is a difference between being uncomfortable, for whatever reason, and case to be made for harm to have been unreasonably caused


Treat bullying as a performance matter, not one of health and safety. This can be a bit of a controversial perspective as bullying can be highly subjective and individually-oriented with regards to interpretation and impact. However, it’s strategically important the conversation is moved from personal sensitivity to normalised behaviour that is not desired whether intended to harm or not. Whilst bullying has very real health and safety implications, its placement under the lens of health and safety tends to place responsibility on the victim(s) rather than the individual or individuals who engaged in the behaviour or action(s) in question in the first place


Pay attention to culture. Workplace culture is the unspoken amalgamation of what is OK to do and not OK to do around the workplace. It can include symbols and traditions, typical conversations and the way issues are raised and managed. How do we deal with conflict? How do we manage dissent? Are people afraid to speak up, speak out, or speak about? How do we manage performance? Is the way we do things around here, when no one is holding us to account, the way we desire to? Aspects of culture both enable undesirable behaviour and promote desired behaviour, and the way we manage critical business as usual that pushes us away from our towards people is an insight into the culture we have.