Five Ways To Shut Down Workplace Bullying

Five Ways To Shut Down Workplace Bullying

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

There are definite steps leaders can take to proactively address bullying. However, if a workplace “conflict” involves an issue of illegal activity, violence (and threats), sexual harassment, worker/customer safety, or other issue with legal ramifications, this is not something to try and handle on your own. In these cases, go directly to HR, your boss, and the legal department and/or use the processes in place for these types of issues.

Here are five ways to shut down workplace bullying:

  1. Know what a bully looks like.Workplace bullies aren’t always easy to identify. Sometimes the signs of bullying are overt, including yelling, threats, coercion, belittlement and humiliation, and are easy to see. But when bullies take a covert approach to tormenting their victims, this slow and insidious treatment can be almost impossible for anyone outside the interpersonal interaction to identify.

Good skills can also protect workplace bullies and even bring them reward. The toxic and destructive acts of the bully are driven by a bad attitude, but when a bully looks good on paper due to skills-based success and good or even great performance reviews, leaders often overlook the bad attitude of these ‘Talented Terrors’ and even praise them as high performers.

Even the most highly skilled bullies are low performers---no exceptions. Teach your people, and especially your leaders, to look beyond the obvious signs of bullying and to not let a great skill set cloud how they see the facts about any employee’s behavior.

  1. Establish a strong definition of ‘workplace civility.’Employees typically lack knowledge of performance expectations, including workplace civility, because managers say, “I shouldn’t have to spoon feed people about the difference between high and low performance; they should just know it.” It’s a manager’s job to teach performance expectations, but merely saying “be civil” or “speak nicely” or “treat everyone in a courteous manner” or “maintain the highest standards of professionalism” is not teaching clear expectations. Phrases like this are wide open to interpretation, including very poor interpretations. Put down on paper exactly what good, great and bad behavior for ‘workplace civility’ looks like, including attitudinal examples, and openly display this definition around the workplace.
  2. Provide organization-wide training.Training all employees on bullying empowers everyone in the organization to create a more positive work environment. Teach your people how to shut down bullying by providing training on skills including assertiveness, saying “no,” preempting intimidating requests and owning their decisions.
  3. Address bullying as it happens.Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and nothing shines brighter than the facts (those points that are objectively verifiable). Address bullying as it happens. Have details (the facts) ready to use and avoid the use of absolutes (e.g. words like “never” and “always”), which only give the bully opportunity to pivot the conversation to that one time they displayed model behavior.
  4. Develop a script for talking to bullies.If you don’t prepare in advance so you know what to say when confronting a bully, you risk being eaten alive. Don’t try and analyze these Talented Terrors. This is behavior management and not psychotherapy. You can’t make people change, you can only enforce consequences and offer choices. If a bully opts not to change, let them go.

I’ve developed the following four-step script to ease the intimidation a lot of managers feel when confronting a bully:

  • Step 1. Establish a candid context
  • Step 2. Describe the timely, objective and specific issue
  • Step 3. Candidly eliminate the status quo
  • Step 4. Calmly offer a choice with a 24-hour option.

Here’s an example of the script in action:

"I’ve called you in because there’s a problem with your recent performance. Last week in Tuesday’s task force meeting you made three biting and sarcastic remarks during our brainstorming session. That is not acceptable behavior in that setting and it will not be allowed to continue. I can’t force you to change and I won’t try. But you do have a choice: you can change your behavior or keep it where it is. If you change, you will be much more effective, and I think you’ll see your teammates respond more positively. If you decide to change I can work with you to outline a very specific action plan with clear expectations. If you opt not to change, then we’ll begin an improvement plan which, without significant progress, could ultimately result in termination (insert your own HR policies here). I believe you can change this behavior. But only you can choose the path that’s right for you. Just be clear that there are only two options here and maintaining your present course is not an option. You can give me your decision right now or you can take 24 hours to make a decision."

You may hear a variety of responses including denial (“I didn’t do anything wrong”), narcissism (“I’m the best person you’ve got”) and anger (“How dare you insult me like this”). In all cases, stick to the facts and don’t deviate from your script, even if it means repeating yourself numerous times.

Bullying impacts the morale, retention, productivity and time of good people. Don’t wait for bullying to become a problem before you address it. Start putting these 5 steps into action today.

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a New York Times bestselling author and teaches the leadership course What Great Managers Do Differently.

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