Balancing act: Fight workplace bullying with better communication skills

Published: Tuesday, July 8 2014 8:00 a.m. MDT

Changing a company's culture is never easy, but when bullying becomes endemic, it's time to act. If a company does so, even the worst cases of workplace bullying can be resolved. Maxfield wrote about problems faced by the major U.S. auto manufacturers in the 1980s and 1990s.

"Bullying by foremen, the front-line supervisors, was a big problem," he wrote. "In fact, any visitor would quickly notice that supervisors were, as a rule, physically larger and more imposing than hourly workers. It was common for them to use their fists to get their way. It was a poisonous atmosphere where people were beat up, starting cycles of revenge and retribution.

"We helped to break the cycle by forming training teams that included both supervisors and union reps. These teams would co-train both foremen and hourly people how to resolve their differences using dialogue instead of fists."

This kind of dialogue training is VitalSmarts' business, so it's no surprise that Maxfield would be an advocate of it. But I think his suggestions make sense no matter what services his company offered.

As he pointed out in our interview, it's natural for people who feel attacked to go into "fight or flight" mode. If they choose "flight," they will avoid a bully, stay silent and retreat. If they choose "fight," they may show bullying behavior themselves.

"There are a lot of reasons that people feel threatened or attacked in today’s workplaces," Maxfield wrote. "They may think their project or decision is at risk; they may think their promotion or their job is threatened; or they may think their idea or credibility is under attack. When these things happen, and people feel unsafe, a sizable percentage of us will go into fight mode.

"The solution is better skills for disagreeing and holding others accountable — dialogue skills — so that we don’t have to go into 'fight or flight' mode."

I completely agree, and I think surveys like this one from VitalSmarts are an excellent first step toward raising awareness of the problem. Now our organizations need to go further and actually take steps to resolve it.

Some of you have already shared your personal stories of workplace bullying and how you tried to overcome it. I would appreciate hearing any other ideas you may have. I'll share some of them in a future column and hopefully we'll all find ideas that will help us take action to stop workplace bullying.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.