Bullying - the answer

August 5, 2020

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Bullying - the answer

We live in an age of bullying. In many ways it’s built into the system. It will increase with the added stressors created by working from home and increasingly become cyber and Zoom-bullying and harassment.

In this article I want to answer the question: What do organizations and their leaders need to do to prevent bullying? In a second article, Alicia will discuss what individuals can do to empower themselves and counter being bullied.

David Brown is a good friend of mine. He’s one of Australia’s most successful CEOs. We spoke of how he dealt with harassment and bullying in the companies he’s led.

“I believe bullies in the corporate world share the same characteristics and traits as their counterparts in politics, sporting fields and school yards,” he told me. “They rely on controlling the dialogue (and often the volume) of an interaction. I call it ‘white noise.’ They need to dominate those they perceive to be weaker and more vulnerable than they are and shift the blame for their mistakes and inadequacies onto them. You simply can’t allow that to happen.”

Brown believes firmly that bullying occurs in businesses because it is permitted and sometimes encouraged.

The truth is that we’ve known how to defeat corporate  bullying since 1970, it’s just that, despite all the research since then and all of the air and words expended and training courses given and taken, nothing has changed. If anything, the situation is worse.

As I pointed out in my previous article, bullies are both born and made. Some bullies are genetically predisposed to be the way they are. Others are the product of a certain kind of parenting and a small number are created by the pressures inherent in the jobs that they do. There are pure bullies (nearly all of whom are genetically predisposed to be so), bully-victims and pure victims. It’s complicated.

There has never been a study that I know of which shows how many people fall into each of these categories. The genetics which drive an individual to become a leader and those that predispose a person to become a bully are very similar and the genetic mix which drives the desire for leadership is in about 5 to 10% of the population, so probably the same percentage of us are disposed to be bullies. Overwhelmingly, pure bullies are male. This is true of cyber bullies and ordinary bullies.

Just as bullying has several different causes, so there are a variety of solutions. The worst approach is to see all bullies as the same and try to apply a one-size-fits-all solution. My partner, Dr Alicia Fortinberry, and I have seen this approach, in various guises, fail time after time.

Increasing a bully’s self-esteem doesn’t work

Up until recently, it was supposed by most researchers that bullies lacked self-esteem and that was behind their bullying. If you could somehow build up their self-esteem the errant behavior would stop. More recent studies have shown that although this might be true of female bullies, it’s not true of males.

When high-self-esteem males intimidate or persecute  colleagues it’s often because they have a low opinion of the workplace or their peers or juniors, not themselves. The culture of the workplace allows their abuse, and often encourages it.

Just increasing the victim’s self-esteem is not the answer either

Many anti-bullying programs have focused on raising the self-esteem of the victims and bully-victims in the belief that they will then be better able to stand up for themselves. And that’s certainly true for pure victims. However, any self-esteem increase is useless unless the context of the workplace changes so that the new level of self-esteem is maintained.

Research shows that increasing the self-esteem of bully-victims may, in fact, be counter-productive, even though their sense of self-worth is often very fragile. Most victims and bully-victims suffer from depression and treating this may be a better option.

Bullying is learned

The how-to of bullying is the result of implicit learning. Bullies or bully-leaders learn their craft from watching what other successful bullies or bully-leaders do.

They learn how to select potential victims and how to persecute them. They’re rewarded for their actions by getting more parental attention or followers at school or status in the workplace. Many children and adults are attracted to bullies. As adolescents and adults, male bullies have a greater selection of girlfriends (whose lives they may well make a Hell of) and a larger group of followers and friends. They generally have higher incomes.

Teach top dogs new tricks.

The desire to achieve status and affection—and thus safety, because those of status are generally protected—is true of all human beings, but especially true of bullies.

People see both a leader and a bully-leader as someone who can offer them support and are therefore attracted to them.

As Catherine Ryan, the Development and Engagement Manager of a mid-sized American professional service firm points out: “Most bullying is hierarchical and very little of it is ‘peer-to-peer’—except at the very junior level where people are in direct competition for permanent employment or advancement.”

Ryan says that the best way to deal with hierarchical bullying is to reduce the positional or remuneration status of bullies. “Demote them or ensure that they don’t gain promotion (from partner to senior partner for example), she said. “Or deprive them of status by reducing their pay since, above a certain point, pay is very much a status symbol. Take away their status and the bully or bully-leader will often leave of their own accord.”

Alex Davies, the HR director of a major US corporation told me of an executive that they eventually had to let go.

“He was a bully, and probably a narcissist—as many are. Under the previous CEO he was protected since he performed well.

“When the new CEO came on board things changed. He and I worked together to lay down a list of behaviors that we said would not be tolerated. These included:

  • targeted practical jokes
  • unfair allocation of work
  • being purposely misleading about work duties, like incorrect deadlines or unclear directions
  • continued denial of requests for time off without an appropriate or valid reason
  • threats, humiliation, and other verbal abuse
  • excessive performance monitoring
  • overly harsh or unjust criticism

“We allowed zero tolerance of these behaviors together with real and immediate consequences,” Davies said. “We gave the executive three clear warnings. He didn’t change, so we sacked him.”

But proscribing a list of behaviors which will not be tolerated is only the first step.

Since the prime drive of a bully is for safety and status and the behaviors that are classed as aberrant were learned, they can learn other behaviors which will bring them the same rewards in a more non-abusive way.

The problem is that organizations are rarely clear about what behaviors they’ll reward.

Alicia and I have successfully pioneered what we call a “behavioral charter” in a number of businesses which were beset by harassment and bullying (and a greater number that weren’t but just wanted better collaboration).

The idea is that teams or departments—and often the organization as a whole—decide on a limited number of behaviors which they feel will be appropriate to them and to the values and overall mission of the business. The behaviors must be very specific. Under “respect” might be “we say please and thank you,” or “good morning.” Under “trust” might be that “we tell each other the truth,” or “we strive to do what we say we will.”

Usually there are only about ten or so behaviors on the charter. These are what we call “core behaviors,” in a sense they need to be followed if a person is to remain a member of the tribe. Adherence to them often becomes part of the way overall performance is judged and promotion granted.

The key element is that everyone, regardless of rank, participates and has an equal say in what goes into the charter. Because of that the behaviors are socially reinforced. It’s very similar to how hunter-gatherer bands enforce their rules, so it’s in line with our genetics. Adherence to the new behaviors is rewarded with praise, inclusion, belonging, advancement and other powerful relational rewards.

Although bullying actions are rarely mentioned specifically, those who have subscribed to the charter feel more empowered to report abusive behavior and sanction the bully.

Eventually the flow of dopamine and oxytocin (the two main reward neurochemicals) ensure that the new behaviors become embedded in the parts of the brain— including the basal ganglia—that deal with habitual reactions. The errant behaviors cease.

Reduce bullying by reducing stress levels

It may seem surprising but, historically, relatively few people have been the victims of bullying. However, that’s changing rapidly. A study from Norway showed that in 1983, 10% of school children had been the victims of bullying. By 2001 that had risen to 50%. Similar studies since then in the professions and elsewhere show an equivalent and relentless upward progression.

Some of that is, of course, due to increasing awareness, but most of it isn’t. Rising depression rates, and the effects of increasing workplace and classroom stress are far more likely to be the culprits, because they create more victims and bully-victims.

Daniel is a senior partner in an international law firm in London. He works very hard and is one of the firm’s leading rainmakers. His clients love him, and many have been loyal to him for many years. Yet he often returned to the office, or to his Surrey house, in a foul temper, often even throwing things at people.

On days when he didn’t have many clients, he wasn’t a problem to his team or his family.

“It’s an issue we’ve had with a number of successful partners,” said the HR manager for Daniel’s industry group.

I recently became Daniel’s virtual coach, and the first thing I did was to advise him to snack between clients and also after he’d seen the last one for the day.

Food is necessary for maintaining the brain’s glutamate levels and glutamate is an important factor in modifying behavior (increasing empathy and being more open to persuasion and acting ethically for example)—which is why taking a potential client or customer out to lunch is such a good idea.

Daniel was displaying a fairly typical reaction to low brain glutamate levels.

A low glutamate level limits our ability to be “good” or “ethical” and when we have not eaten for a while the amount of brain glutamate declines. And with it our tolerance for other people. The slightest thing can set us off and we can become a bully.

All undue stress acts to reduce the supply of glutamate—and its effectiveness in terms of mental and physical energy. This robs potential victims of the energy needed to defend themselves and can cause obesity as people eat more and more to keep their energy levels up. According to a recent study, 87% of all employees complain of workplace stress.

Stress itself can also lead people to become bullies especially if they’ve been victims of bullying in the past. Reducing the stress level of a person’s job, or of the work environment generally, will often reduce bullying.

Helping victims

It may seem a statement of the obvious, but if you have no victims, you have no bullying. In the workplace, victims of bullying have almost all had a history of poor relations with parents and teachers. In childhood they found it difficult to talk to their parents or felt little or no confidence in their teachers. They had little experience of setting boundaries or expressing their needs.

Bullies are most often in senior positions. Because of this, bystanders may feel sympathy for the victim (and are often traumatized by what they see) but rarely intervene.

In 1970, researchers developed an effective bystander intervention model which has been used to stamp out bullying in many of the organizations we have worked with. The five core principles of it are:

  • Notice the event. Often people in senior positions simply do not want to notice what their peers or reports are doing. If targets are met all is well. The first key step to eliminating bullying is to reverse this and to encourage a retribution-free “speak up” policy. Unfortunately, the majority of organizations which have tried this have failed.
  • Interpret a bullying act as an issue needing immediate attention. Mostly bullying is persistent repetition of individually minor acts—criticism, teasing, denigrating etc. The victim is often told to “just laugh it off,” “pay it no mind,” “that’s just Joe being Joe,” or worse still “stand up for yourself.” A persistently teased, criticized, or harassed individual may not be able to do any of these things.
  • Accept responsibility. The responsibility for recognizing, and reporting bullying is on the observer. They must be empowered to do so without fear of retribution.
  • Know what to do. All staff, but particularly anyone in a senior position, must have training in what to do when they witness or hear of bullying.
  • Act! Knowing what to do is useless unless it leads to action. Too often, because of a lack of leadership response, it doesn’t.

Victims, and bully-victims, almost invariably suffer from depression, or anxiety, or both. They’re also frequently suicidal. Above all else they need to be listened to, and to be taken seriously by those in charge. In my experience this rarely happens. Instead victims are given time off (a really bad idea) or palmed off on the EAP (who generally have little or no experience of bullying or harassment victims) or referred to a psychologist or counselor.

This latter is a good idea, but it can only be a partial solution because the bullied will come back, and the cycle will begin all over again.

In the end, leaders must work to change the culture which permits—or even encourages—bullying. The 1970 guidelines and the behavioral charter are great places to start.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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