It's back-to-school time. As another school year begins, our thoughts may turn to our own experiences, whether or not we have children in the schools. Classroom lessons certainly helped lay the foundations for our knowledge of essential information, as well as how to think. Lessons outside of the classroom also should've taught us a lot about life and about how to deal with people, resolve problems, and handle conflict. Even though they don't appear on transcripts, we received grades for how well-or poorly-we did outside of the classroom. And dealing with bullies has been one of those tough lessons.
These days, we hear more than ever about the aggressive behavior of bullies in school. There are three reasons for this attention. First, the rules have changed about the acceptability of aggressive behaviors in the schools. Bullying others just isn't acceptable any longer. Secondly, we've come to understand kids don't really want to be bullies. They fall into this behavior because of some problems within a household where peaceful resolution of problems isn't known. Finally, aggression has escalated dramatically so that bullying with harsh words or fists has turned into intimidation with guns and bombs among youth.
Bullying continues in the workplace when not handled well earlier in life; stress also can surface bad behavior. One of the difficult parts of being a manager is dealing with aggressive and intimidating behavior in the workplace, and to deal with it in a firm yet ethical way. Some workplaces are more intense than others and can deal with people who are strong, loud, and aggressive. Other workplaces have unwritten rules of quiet, respectful cooperation where aggression breeds anxiety. What are the unwritten rules of your workplace?
Workplace bullies prevail using the same methods that helped them dominate in their younger days. Some are abusive by screaming at people-sometimes an entire department or sometimes a singled-out individual. Some corner an individual and issue general threats about that person's well-being in the job. Others threaten to sabotage a job, the work of a team, a client relationship, and, in recent years, threaten to sue if their demands aren't met.
In the dynamics of workplace aggression, people seem to fall into the roles they had as children in the schoolyard. Bullies may seek attention-the "watch me" types, try to take control-the "resist me" types, or be disruptive-the "try me" types. The people picked on by bullies try different strategies to counter bully behavior. They do what they can to avoid, comply with, resist, or humor their way through the intimidation.
And we all thought we grew out of these childish patterns, right? Experienced managers know differently. It's important now to be proactive and firm when dealing with workplace bullies-but also ethical. The ethical approach always sees the big picture while dealing with the specifics of abusive and intimidating behavior.
What's the big picture issue? In three words, it's process, system, and culture. A good manager asks how the workplace process enables bullies to flourish and hostile behavior to be accepted and even rewarded. Is there a lack of a team process in the workplace, or a clear sense of next steps in how work gets done? The system may set lofty targets to meet and stress the importance of competition and power to reach them. The culture may reward bad behavior, cover up nastiness, or promote peace at any price.
Supervisors and managers may have policies and procedures in place to deal with aggressive or intimidating behavior, but if the process, system, or culture won't support their use of those policies, the bullies will triumph. As the saying goes, "Bad news travels quickly." In one workplace where I consulted-a large, family-owned enterprise-there were strict policies regarding bullying and intimidation, including immediate termination.
When I asked how these policies were applied, the supervisors as a group rolled their eyes and groaned. One by one they cited incidences when employees made vague threats of violence against other employees, used knives (but out of sight of monitors) to make their demands, or described how they would spread vicious gossip in the community against selected employees. As supervisors confronted this bullying behavior and issued warnings and even termination notices, senior management wouldn't sign off on these actions. Why not? The unwritten cultural rule was, "We're a family, and we can deal with differences."
So the bullies prevailed-a not uncommon result. Is this ethical? Is this practical? Can work get done in such an environment? Yes, work can be accomplished, but at the cost of low employee morale, high turnover, and harassment lawsuits. From a practical standpoint, employers need to deal proactively and clearly with bullying behavior, designing a system that will redirect bad behavior, and, when the bullying types won't comply, end it quietly but firmly. It may be back to school for children, but when it comes to bullying, school's out, and adult life must prevail. IBI