Dealing with a bully at work

Culture  Leadership
11 June, 2018

How to handle bullies at an organisational level, as well as if you’re the target

We mostly associate “bullying” with playgrounds and high schools – but this is an issue that continues well into adulthood. In fact, it is pervasive in the corporate world. You know that leader who manipulates his team using fear and intimidation? Or the rude colleague who constantly puts down other people? These are classic workplace bullies, although their behaviour is often described in veiled terms like “dominant management style” or “intensely competitive”.

Over the past few months, there has been an exodus of executives – some quite senior – in a revered, global athletic gear company. The cause for their departure? They were guilty of serious and sustained corporate bullying. The public nature of their exit has shone a spotlight on this persistent (yet often overlooked) problem, kick-starting important conversations in companies across the globe.

At Godrej also, unfortunately, we do witness instances of this behaviour. I can recall one executive in recent history who was asked to leave, primarily because of his bullying approach.

So, this week, my message focuses on workplace bullying – how we can prevent it at an organisational level, and how to deal with it at a personal level.

To begin with, it’s important to understand what exactly constitutes bullying. In his Harvard Business Review article, Diagnose and Eliminate Workplace Bullying, Baron Christopher Hanson explains:

In twenty years of experience, I’ve learned the differences between hard-charging bosses and executives who push for positive organizational results aggressively, and bullies who calculate patterns of fear to manipulate self-serving outcomes….

Workplace bullying is defined commonly as individuals or groups who use aggressive or unreasonable tactics against co-workers or subordinates persistently. Bullying is not conflict, a personality clash, or being chewed out by a boss.

The cost of disparagement

To put it plainly, bullies are expensive: they cost the organisation in terms of money, time, retention, and workforce wellness. Unhappy employees can’t do their best work, and some even start looking out for other opportunities. But beyond the bottom line, bullying creates a toxic and miserable work environment. When people are relentlessly belittled, it’s not just their productivity that suffers – so does their confidence, self-worth, and quality of life itself.

When it comes from leaders, bullying also has a damaging ripple effect. For instance, a manager who insults and humiliates subordinates sets the same tone for his team, greenlighting such behaviour down the line as well. If they aren’t pulled up and checked, the bullies begin to feel untouchable and as if they can get away with anything – which can lead to even more serious abuse.

How to curb bullying – at an organisational level

In her Harvard Business Review article, How to Confront an Office Bully, Cheryl Dolan explains that leadership plays a crucial role in eliminating workplace intimidation:

Bullying can’t survive in workplaces that won’t support it. Intervention by management is a powerful weapon to reducing bullying in the workplace. Most targets can’t win alone — most bullies will never stop.

Here are some steps leaders can take to curb bullying:

1. Take a stand

In their book, The Bully at Work, psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie explain that bullies thrive on secrecy, shame, and the silence of others. A survey conducted among the targets of bullying found that while 95% of their co-workers witnessed the mistreatment at least once, little was done to actually stop it. People didn’t want to risk getting involved or standing out from the crowd; some even preferred to blame the victim.

As leaders, it’s up to us to make bullying unacceptable. At Godrej, we are very clear that we have zero tolerance for any such behaviour. So, break the silence: Have a one-on-one with the aggressor and make it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable in our organisation. Sit down with the person who was targeted and reassure them that you’ve taken the necessary action. As a pre-emptive step, you could create ground rules for your team that anchor the values of respect and compassion for one another.

2. Nip it in the bud 

The longer bullying carries on, the tougher it becomes to stop. If you notice verbal abuse or harassment, don’t sit back and wait for it to “sort itself out”. Sweeping it under the carpet simply enables it to continue and escalate. Instead, get involved as soon as possible. Frankly, this has been an important learning for me. In the recent instance at Godrej that I mentioned above, in hindsight, I wish I had acted sooner.

Do keep in mind that calling out a bully in public can actually make things worse, so it’s better to address the issue privately. If you witness an instance of bullying spinning out of control in a public setting (like a meeting), call for a timeout and escort the bully out for a conversation. Allowing such behaviour to continue unchecked is not only harmful for the person being targeted but also for the leader – it causes your team to lose respect for and faith in your leadership capabilities.

3. Consider training 

If you identify a team member with an overly aggressive attitude or a budding tendency to belittle colleagues, ask yourself if there are any training programmes that could help modify their behaviour. Contrary to popular belief, many bullies can (and do) change. The athletic gear company, for example, is redesigning management training and starting unconscious bias education to foster a healthier work culture.

So, look for programmes that could help put your bully-in-the-making back on the right track. It’s especially important to provide training for new managers, so they can learn the appropriate ways to exercise their authority.

4. Take the CAPE approach 

In case of a serious allegation, you could use the CAPE framework, outlined by Baron Christopher Hanson in the article mentioned above:

  • Confront. Gather a small panel and quickly hold impromptu interviews with the alleged bullies, enablers, and targets – separately. Having the meetings at short notice keeps people from “getting their stories straight”. During these conversations, document all evidence.
  • Analyse. Assess and deliberate the facts. If the panel finds merit in the complaint, discuss this with the bully. If they respond positively and are willing to make a change, well and good. If they respond negatively, move on to the next step.
  • Present. Present the bully with documented evidence from steps 1 and 2. Does this change their mind? Are they able to see the problem with their behaviour, and are they open to change? If not, move on to the final step.
  • Expose. In the most serious cases, where bullies are unwilling to accept responsibility or alter their tactics, exposure is the final resort. If all else has failed, it’s time to begin a formal inquiry. Once outed, bullying tends to disappear.

How to tackle a bully – at a personal level

Bullying can occur at any age and any stage. While leaders are less likely to face the problem (thanks to the power balance being in their favour), they are certainly not immune. If you find yourself at the receiving end, here are some steps to address the challenge:

1. Diagnose and document 

First, make sure what you’re facing is actually bullying – rather than frank criticism or a clash of working styles. For your own clarity as well as being able to take action later (if warranted), document the problem: note down incidents over a period of time. Is there a pattern to the behaviour? Is it persistent? Does it make you feel humiliated or belittled?

2. Take action 

In a private setting, if someone starts shouting at and disparaging you, defuse the situation by calmly repeating their name over and over again – a highly effective tactic. If you find it difficult to stop the behaviour on your own, solicit the help of a trusted peer, leader, or mentor. If that, too, doesn’t work, it may be time to consider a formal complaint.

3. Build a support system 

Be it trusted co-workers, mentors, friends, or family members, it’s crucial to surround yourself with people you can talk to openly and who support you. Remember, bullying can take a toll on your mental and emotional health; until the situation is resolved, make sure you take good care of yourself.

At the athletic gear company, many employees were even more disillusioned by the bullying epidemic because the brand positions itself as aware and progressive. As one person said: “We always wished the company would live up to its marketing. But it didn’t.”

As a group that was founded on equality, inclusion, and respect – values that have held us in good stead for over 120 years, we must ensure that we walk the talk. Let’s work together to weed out any bullying behaviours in our ranks, so we can live up to our promise.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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