There’s a thin line between a high-performance workplace with high expectations and an organisation poisoned by bullying. It’s a line that’s getting thinner with the intensification of 21st century working (via IT, always on working and use of performance targets).
As Amnesty International has found in recent months, getting the balance wrong has serious consequences. The entire leadership team at Amnesty has offered to resign after a report into the charity’s working environment pointed to a “climate of tension and mistrust”, including bullying and an adversarial culture. The study had been commissioned following the suicides of two members of staff.
Similarly there has been news that one of the latest clinical commissioning groups in the UK, responsible for an £800 million budget, was coming under increased scrutiny by NHS England because of bullying allegations and whistleblowing against its leadership.
Guarding against any kind of slide into inappropriate behaviours and bullying means being in a position to break cycles created by competitive pressures, high expectations and strong personalities: encouraging and supporting employees when they speak out, making sure there are trusted processes that can deal with issues early and with the minimum of angst on either side.
That means a mix of training and better processes:
- Being clear on what bullying means in your organisation. Make sure people at all levels know what’s expected from them in terms of manner, what constitutes ‘civility’, and the difference between robust management and bullying and harassment. Remove the potential for inadvertent bullying due to a lack of conversation skills.
- Don’t just talk in terms of ‘bullying’. CMP’s experience says that people accused of bullying are often horrified by the label, and end up feeling they are the victimised party, only adding to the cycle of conflict. Instead, introduce the idea of ‘incivility’, a term with less baggage which provides a better basis for discussion and the all important stages of moving forward with conversations and resolutions.
- Provide early and informal solutions. Offer a support service that meets different needs. That can include training staff internally to act as advisors, conflict coaches or mediation and harassment advisors. Or involve setting up an independent option with external experts, making it easier for employees to deal with issues early.
- Offer routes to resolutions. Employees who believe they’re being bullied keep it to themselves because they can’t see or imagine a positive resolution. It’s important for the organisation to be able to offer access to professional mediation, the kind of fair, authoritative and reasonable expertise that can unpick quickly the typical tangles of misconceptions and sensitivities. Managers should have conflict coaching in order to reflect on the impact of their style and behaviours, and to find their own internal motivation for change.
- Don’t just shout about ‘zero-tolerance’. Just proclaiming a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on bullying and harassment can have unintended consequences. Instead of an impact on actual day-to-day behaviour, it drives bullying underground and into more subtle forms. Instead, employers need to be encouraging more self-aware management, focused on maintaining the balance between building trust, openness and delivery. And most of all, the role here for good conversation skills for all, that awkward problems of all kinds will disappear with the simple combination of open-minded and grown-up talking, listening and understanding.
Arran Heal is Managing Director at workplace relationships specialists CMP. CMP is a pioneer of approaches to conflict management and works to improve workplace relationships - a prime mover in the development and adoption of professional approaches to mediation services, investigations and Conversational Intelligence. For the past 25 years it...