The dynamics created by clever bullies in the workplace is complicated. Successful strategies to shift anti-social behavior require well-coordinated activities for three levels.
First are those who truly have the power to decide the workplace will be free of abuse and intimidation. Leadership includes CEOs, boards and partners who have company-wide decision-making authority. After years of looking the other way, changing the anti-social behavior will require an overt desire to shift the negative culture to one of collaboration and personal accountability. It’s not easy. Bullies and toxic employees push back when their informal power is threatened. Without a powerful champion at the top the culture shift will fall flat. When the person at the top is a bully, the situation is much more complicated. Company owners have the legal (if not moral) right to run their company as they see fit. In the nonprofit world the governing board has the power to address this issue. Occasionally partners or corporate boards can address the issue. Successful strategies are often subverted by a clever CEO who can manipulate information, keep secrets and spin complainants out as “crazy” or unreasonable.
When supervisors are bullied, fear of being disliked or targeted keeps them from acting with strength to eliminate abuse and intimidation from someone on their team. Bullies can cleverly sow the seeds of fear so that eventually the fear itself is enough to get a supervisor to back off. Many a supervisor has learned a “lesson” after trying to discipline a difficult and manipulative supervisee has found themselves on the receiving end of successful social tactics. However, when leadership crafts a comprehensive culture shift; vows to discipline employees who abuse and intimidate others, supervisors can reclaim their power and feel confident that leadership will stand behind disciplinary actions. When the supervisor is the bully, leadership must act decisively to counsel, train and support behavior changes. When that doesn’t work, termination may eventually become necessary.
Co-workers – entry level
The toxic employees’ coworkers generally have it the worst. They have no supervisory power and the fear of being called out by the bully will affect their better judgment. Most everyone wants to be liked at work. The threat of marginalization and silent treatment from peers, is a very powerful motivator. Even the most independent workers fear social ostracism at work. Those who speak up are silenced with social tactics such as: gossip, rumors and silent treatment. A comprehensive plan to shift the culture has to include support to your ethical employees on how to set boundaries that coincide with the simple code of conduct. Teaching entry level folks how to resist these social tactics and to band together for support amongst employees who want to perform well, goes a very long way.
It takes a coordinated approach
A broad, coordinated strategy to support each of these groups is needed to shift a company’s culture toward a healthier standard – One where everyone feels empowered to speak up and stop bullies before their dysfunction creates a negative culture in whole departments. The solutions for leaders, supervisors and entry-level employees are different but all can be aimed at speaking up and creating a positive, healthy culture – one that can prevent bullying behavior. You have to match the strategies to the power level of the group. Leaders must agree to a cultural statement and model respectful, thoughtful approaches to victims. They must ensure that bullying tactics are not modeled by any members of the leadership team. Managers must also model respect and be held accountable to lead with a balanced approach. Managers who aren’t skilled in dealing with bullying behaviors need access to coaching & training strategies here. Finally, entry level employees must be empowered to speak up to bullies and report them when boundary setting isn’t working. Teaching everyone techniques to set boundaries with difficult employees and then making sure leaders and supervisors are listening when employees report this behavior, are key to successful coordinated action.
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