Monday, June 3, 2013

Bully Busting and Bystander Apathy

I was privileged to attend and present at the inaugural No2Bullying conference last week on the Gold Coast. It was fabulous to hear so many excellent speakers on the topic of bullying yet confronting to hear so many vivid tales of personal and professional devastation from bullying at work, schoolyard bullying and cyber bullying.

Only today my partner said how much more frequently he is reading articles on bullying and harassment cases in the digital and broadsheet press.

Whilst now armed with fresh statistics and leading edge research, my frustrations around the truth of bullying and management accountability have not really changed.

Is bullying on the rise? Perhaps not. Are more workers aware of their rights? Yes. Are they more likely to take action? Possibly. But the vast majority of those bullied tend to leave rather than stay and fight. And what's more, it's not for us to tell them they should stay and fight if their physical and psychological health is on the line.

We would not have survived as a species if we didn't have a fundamental desire to flee when under threat. And in an era in which some bosses think their people are lucky to have a job, and in the context of excessively lean staffing, some workers are being asked to do the unreasonable. They shouldn’t have to lose their jobs to make that point.

In recent articles, some of those commenting have been quick to point the finger of bully blame at young inexperienced managers, but an autocratic or micromanaging style doesn't discriminate on age.

I feel for those who are bullied, sometimes mercilessly. I also feel for those managers who are guilty of nothing more than wanting to ensure their people do a reasonable day's work for a reasonable day's pay. Workers, who got away with a lot previously and have now been made accountable, may be genuinely stressed. But no-one has caused them a workplace injury if the reasonable person test is applied and measures taken constitute “reasonable management action”. Some managers don't set out to bully but become frustrated, even aggressive when employees don't respond well to the feedback. It's not the manager’s fault if employees don't want reasonable or necessary change. However managers must make reasonable attempts to set their people up to be successful through patience, empathy, consistent application of rules and quality coaching.
The big new push at the conference and indeed one of the major premises in my new book “Vulture Cultures” is the critical importance of ‘calling’ bullying when people witness it. The passive role of the bystander marks the most critical opportunity for change as 80% of counterproductive workplace behavior is not called. That being so, rarely is a mirror held up to the bully by someone else who sees the bully’s behaviour as overzealous, notwithstanding genuine conduct or performance issues. Expecting the person being abused or intimidated to stand up to the bully in the presence of a substantial power imbalance may not be practicable or reasonable.

In the best cultures, the wrong thing is rarely committed, but if it is, someone ‘calls’ it and even more indicative of an ethical culture, is prepared to ‘consequence’ it.   

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