Thriving Under Fire Blog

Workplace bullying - even the word causes stress

Posted by John Faisandier on Nov 29, 2017 1:04:00 PM

Workplace bullying is destructive. Some people act in a 'bullying way' when they are understress. When teams have training in emotional intelligence and gain the skills to manage heightened emotions there are fewer problems with bullying.

A new General Manager in a local branch of the global corporate organisation was determined to root out any hint of workplace bullying by managers. She told her staff to come directly to her if they had any concerns about managers bullying them. A number of staff did approach her and told her that they had been bullied. Keen to make an impression on the organisation the General Manager fired several senior managers after a brief investigation of each. Their pay-outs, to avoid protracted personal grievance court cases, were considerable.

Boss displaying workplace bullying behaviour

While it is commendable that the new manager took so much interest and was concerned about workplace bullying, the resulting loss in expertise and corporate knowledge was great. The further cost of recruiting and training new managers was also very high. Was there something else she could have done with these managers? Did they all need to be fired?

Bullies do exist and they create chaos in the workplace. The sooner they are removed from the workplace the better. But true bullies are not all that common. Some people are intrinsically bullies because of the particular make up of their personalities, which has developed through difficult early childhood experiences. Changing their behaviour usually requires addressing the root causes of their behaviour through intensive psychotherapy, should they be willing to take that path.

There are many others who act in a ‘bullying way’ when they are under stress. Their behaviour does impact on staff and others in the workplace but they are fundamentally good people. What they lack is sufficient emotional intelligence (EQ) to be able to moderate their own behaviour when they are under stress. They don’t understand their own emotional reactions or how to manage those reactions. When they are under stress they act in ways that they have used throughout their life to get their needs met. Low EQ is quite different from a person’s professional ability or their intelligence.

While a manager’s behaviour impacts in a major way on their direct reports and others they work with, the problem can be compounded when their staff also do not have high levels of EQ. People with high EQ have a better chance of maintaining good communication with others who are stressed and act in domineering ways; whether that person is a manager, a colleague or a customer. In stressful situations, staff with low EQ are less able to respond adequately to those managers who may themselves be stressed and project that onto other people around them. With so much talk about workplace bullying, such a manager’s behaviour can quickly get labelled as bullying and they may be treated as if they are unable to change, and must be dismissed.

Dismissal of any staff without a full exploration of the issues leads to unnecessary cost, personal distress and uncertainty within the whole organisation. When bad behaviour is observed there is a temptation to assume that the person acting in this unhelpful way lacks the motivation to relate well to those about them. Somehow their behaviour is attributed to their motives and their motives are seen as destructive, critical, and oppressive. These are the kinds of behaviours that are labelled as bullying and more often reflect a lack of skill rather than bad intentions.

Let us look at this behaviour as lack of skill and how it might be changed. In their bestselling book Influencer: the power to change anything Kerry Patterson and his co-authors talk about six sources of influence in change.

The two functions of motivation and skill can each be broken down to three levels: personal, group and organisation. The authors found that most people attributed bad behaviour to poor motivation of the individual to interact positively (the personal level motivation). In fact, bad behaviour that is labelled as bullying can more often be attributed to a lack of skill at the personal level.

In dealing with problems of interpersonal communication, I have found that it is more often the lack of skill that causes problems rather than a lack of motivation. Giving individuals the skills to understand and manage their own and others’ emotions is a great first step. At the second level, giving a group these skills can make a significant positive impact on a business; and when the whole organisation addresses the skills and motivation of its staff (the third level) then real change can occur. In the Influencer Model the authors say that attending to four or more of the six sources of influence will bring about change.

 

Motivation

Skill

 Personal

  • Connect the vital behaviours to intrinsic motives
  • Make the undesirable desirable
  • Build personal ability so that staff actually know how to do the desired vital behaviours
  • Training and coaching

 Group

  • Draw on the power of social influence in groups to motivate change to the new behaviours
  • Harness positive peer pressure to encourage new behaviours
  • Enable the new behaviours in the group
  • Find strength in numbers
  • Peers help peers to learn and apply the skills
  • Team training

 Organisation

  • Use appropriate incentives and sanctions to motivate people to adopt the vital behaviours
  • Implement measures and rewards and demand accountability
  • Ensure that systems, processes, reporting structures, visual cues, workplace layout, tools etc. support the vital behaviours.
  • Change the environment

When ‘bullying’ or aggressive forms of communication have been going on for some time in an organisation they can lead to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. People accept that they cannot do anything about it and the results can be loss of productivity; high levels of stress resulting in absenteeism and staff churn; or worst a personal grievance or a prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work Act for harm to employees.

 It is possible to turn this situation around by giving everyone the skills to manage their stress and to communicate well in these highly emotional situations.

New way needed to overcome workplace bullying

What is needed is an entirely new way ...to help people boost their emotional intelligence.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Daniel Golman

When managers and other people leaders are under pressure and struggling to deal with their own and other’s emotional responses then training is crucial for creating a more healthy environment. Too many people have been promoted to leadership positions without the opportunity to acquire and refine their people management skills.

Furthermore, training for all staff to deal with others who are expressing strong emotion is an important part of building a healthy and robust organisation. If all staff have the skills to hold difficult conversations then they are more likely to be able to give feedback to their managers if the manager’s behaviour becomes aggressive, domineering or seems like workplace bullying. If this feedback is given early in a relationship it is likely that the controlling person will moderate their behaviour and in doing so increase their EQ. They will be less likely to cause their colleagues distress and will learn how to communicate effectively even when they are under pressure.

It is a tragedy that many organisations invest so little time and money into effective training so that problems such as described here, which could be solved by a relatively small investment of time and money, end up becoming major problems that impinge on productivity and effectiveness in the workplace.

There is further risk to an organisation because such continued bullying behaviour by managers and others in a workplace becomes a health and safety issue. Organisations place themselves at risk of personal grievance cases and large pay-outs for causing distress if they do nothing to address people’s ability to deal effectively with the stress. 

Effective training in emotional intelligence and communication would go a long way to reducing these risks and increasing the ability of work teams to achieve their goals.

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Topics: Emotions at work, Health and Safety at Work Act, Workplace stress, Dealing with stress at work, Bullying, Workplace hazards, Stress at work, workplace bullying

Managing Emotions

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