Of all the problems that find their way into leaders’ in-trays, one of the thorniest is the issue of workplace bullying.
It’s an emotive and highly sensitive area, one that can have a pernicious effect on team morale and productivity, result in good employees leaving a business and cause significant reputational damage.
Dealing with bullying is no easy task, not least because the first step may well involve accepting that senior management is responsible – however unwittingly – for creating the conditions in which it can take root.
Allowing for the (relatively) rare clinical cases, the vast majority of bullies are made, not born. They are part and parcel of any human group dynamic – from the school playground to huge multi-nationals – and from an organisational perspective they often represent the dark side of the aggressive, ‘my way or the highway’ corporate culture that tends to promote those with the loudest voices or the most go-getting natures.
Such a statement should not be seen as an attempt to excuse the offence; bullying must not be tolerated under any circumstances. But simply removing the perpetrator or placing the victim(s) out of harm’s way will not address the underlying issues. In most cases, it merely ends up creating a vacancy for another bully or victim.
If bullying is prevalent, it must be tackled institutionally, not individually. The primary aim should be to establish a culture whereby behaviours that bring people together are valued more highly than those likely to set them apart.
One of the key steps to achieving this is mobilising bystanders, so that anyone guilty of an act that could be construed as bullying will find themselves receiving a tap on their shoulder and encouragement from a colleague to go and apologise. To us, there’s no better sign of a healthy organisational culture than people feeling they can give honest feedback on a colleague’s behaviour or performance without fear of reprisal.
Tolerant organisations are invariably more innovative, too, because employees will not be fearful of suggesting new ideas or better ways to do things. Individuals will also be much more willing to speak out, even if this involves delivering bad news. How many recent corporate or public sector scandals might have been avoided if the organisation and its management had been more open to criticism from within? Most – if not all – of them, we’d argue.
In the UK at least, bullying is not yet against the law, although harassment relating to factors such as age, gender, race and sexual orientation is covered by the 2010 Equality Act.
The lack of legal jurisdiction underlines the nebulous nature of bullying. It is an issue that needs careful and sensitive handling, but in our view the biggest mistake leaders can make is to let it become all about the individual or individuals, rather than facing up to deficiencies in the organisational dynamic.
Find out more
- Department of Organizational Psychology
- School of Business, Economics and Informatics
- Dr Andreas Liefooghe
- Dan Vacassin