Balancing act: Fight workplace bullying with better communication skills
Based on the responses I received to last week's column, it's clear that bullying is a real problem in our nation's offices.
But I also believe it's a problem we can overcome.
To refresh your memory, I wrote last week about a May 2014 VitalSmarts survey of 2,283 people in which 96 percent of respondents said they had experienced workplace bullying. What's worse is that the respondents said 89 percent of office bullies had been at it for more than a year, and 54 percent had been exhibiting bad behavior for more than five years.
In an email interview with David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and co-author of "Influencer," "Crucial Accountability" and "Change Anything," I asked why bullies seemed to enjoy such career longevity.
Part of the problem, he wrote in reply, is that many of us use bullying behavior, at least some of the time.
"When we see that 96 percent of us have experienced bullying at work, we have to conclude that many more of us exhibit bullying behavior than we’d like to think," Maxfield wrote in his response. "For example, if you practice 'management by joking around,' are you seen by others as a bully who practices 'management by jerking around?'"
He wrote that most of the bullies he has worked with don't even realize that their bad behavior has become part of their identity.
"I recall a physician, the head of anesthesia at one of the world’s premier medical schools," Maxfield wrote. "Other physicians, nurses, residents and staff saw him as an awful bully, but he wasn’t a bully all the time. In fact, 95 percent of the time he was a charming, fun guy.
"However, when he was in a rush, dealing with a crisis, he shouted, threatened and ridiculed to get his way. He saw that 5 percent of his life as 'being human,' but the people around him saw the 5 percent as 'the mask slipping, revealing his true nature.' Bullying moments become defining moments — in others’ eyes. When he realized this, he tearfully vowed to change. And he did."
When it comes to bullying in the workplace, that's the good news. Whether you're a person who sometimes acts as a bully, someone who is often a bully's target, or both, you can change. And your organization can help.
In our email interview, Maxfield wrote that the best way to prevent bullying at work is to build a strong culture of accountability on four levels:
Personal. This means the victim needs to speak up because "silence isn’t golden; it’s permission," Maxfield wrote. "Build the skills so that anyone can speak up to anyone about their concerns."
Peer. Witnesses need to be ready and willing to intervene. "Build the skills so that anyone can hold anyone accountable — regardless of role and position," Maxfield wrote. "In low-accountability organizations, you have to be a manager to hold others accountable. Counter to what most people would expect, a steep, rigid hierarchy is often the sign of poor accountability."
Supervisory. The hierarchy needs to take action. "Most bullying flies below management’s radar screen," Maxfield wrote. "Often it’s only the physical bullying that gets reported to them. The emotional bullying is hard for managers to solve; it needs to be addressed at the peer-to-peer level. When we find managers being bullies, it’s usually because they lack positive skills for holding people accountable. We find that giving them new and better alternative skills will often stop the bullying behaviors."
Systemic. A company's human resources officials must take action, Maxfield wrote, and "create the hiring, promotion, disciplinary and training systems required to support positive problem solving."
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.