She’s amazingly insightful for her years. I’m talking about my niece Paige. Her experience with a grade-school bully and how well she handled it came back to me when I was browbeaten recently at work — yup, at work. More on Paige later.
Bullying not only beleaguers the schoolyard, but it’s likewise rampant in the workplace. Studies show that 75 percent of employees surveyed have been affected by workplace intimidation, either as a target or a witness (Forbes.com, Aug. 27, 2016, “75% of Workers are Affected by Bullying — Here’s What to do About It” by Christine Comaford). Wow.
Like ugly weeds choking a playground, aggressors are allowed to subsist in countless companies, cultivating covert costs and copious casualties.
To discover what drives these office offenders I found information in another Comaford piece, which explores putting the brakes on bullying (Forbes.com, March 12, 2014, “How to Stop Workplace Bullies in their Tracks”).
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (workplacebullying.org), bullying is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators … threatening, humiliating or intimidating, or work-interference, i.e., sabotage, which prevents work from getting done.”
The corporate tormentor typically inflicts psychological, emotional and verbal injuries. Talk about stress. Fortified by the fresh frustration and sting of being an oppressor’s prey, I consolidated my interpretation of Comaford’s writings into five C’s for understanding and overcoming bullying: culprit, conduct, cause, cost, correct.
CULPRIT: Who are bullies, and why do they need to intimidate, harass or harm? Comaford tells us the culprits tend to be skilled at manipulating and controlling, seeing everything as a competition, yet feeling they cannot compete on their own merits. They strong-arm as a tattered attempt to feel more powerful, pressing a perception of strength by putting down and blaming others.
In truth they are often weak and insecure and feel exposed by a colleague’s talents. Like the coercive high school clique commandeering a lunchroom table, criticizing and excluding others is their way of gaining superiority.
CONDUCT: How does the bully behave, and who are his targets? The first thought — and misconception — is that the terrorizer’s conduct is characterized by attacking weak players or those who don’t fit in. Surprisingly, the reverse is true: Often the strongest players are the bully’s objective because star performers make bullies feel threatened, stirring their aggression.
Comaford indicates that persecutors prey on those more accomplished, technically proficient or better liked. The offender may verbally disparage, constantly interrupt, correct or prevent a victim from speaking in meetings.
Insisting they be the only one doing the talking makes bullies feel more forceful, as does condescending emails and crossing personal boundaries. All of these are a tormentor’s tricks to undercut another’s confidence.
Besides dominance and control, Comaford says bullies crave what we all want — a sense of safety, belonging and feeling we matter, although their conduct tries to gain it inappropriately. They put others down because they want to matter; they talk about unfairness because they don’t feel they belong; and they spread fear and negativity because they don’t feel safe. Uncovering what the bully wants is key to eradicating the repetitive, retaliatory routine.
CAUSE: What causes bullying in the workplace? The alarming answer: Authority figures allow it. Often the boss of the bully knows that toxic tactics are taking place, but believes the department needs the aggressor and makes allowances.
Bullying issues may even be labeled “personality conflicts.” As if! Bullying cannot take place without leadership approval, and even if officials find bullies to be appalling, many don’t want to have a confrontation. Instead of action, absurd avoidance settles in.
Putting a stop to bullying takes time, energy and accountability to protect your team and its performance. An executive may decide it’s easier to let the problem “play itself out” than address it. Wrong approach, hands down.
COST: There are substantial costs for supervisors who stomach a bullying environment. They include giving authority away, compromising integrity and implying that bullying is acceptable. No, stop right there: It’s not acceptable.
Comaford calculates that at least five costs are created when bullying is allowed: 1) stress imposed on the bully’s objective reduces performance and often generates health issues, 2) tolerating bullies encourages toxic values that erode accomplishments and morale, 3) the majority of bullies’ victims leave, imposing expenses for employee departure and replacement recruiting, 4) accepting terrorizers promotes high employee turnover overall, and 5) though not technically illegal, bullying is often connected to harassment, discrimination and costly litigation.
Comaford also notes the personal guilt that executives experience when they don’t protect their group and they permit bullying to crush company culture.
CORRECT: Knowing who the bullying culprits are, what their conduct looks like and who they target, what causes them to act out and what the costs are, how do you take corrective action? Comaford says aggressors persist because someone higher up likes them — “he’s really a great guy after you get to know him” — or another load of doo-doo.
Besides addressing bullying issues, leaders must structure a safe and healthy work environment. Begin to correct the problem by taking a crucial first step: Confront the bully. Ask questions; uncover needs. Outline specific behavior required to change, period.
Next agree to objective performance measurements that track whether change is occurring. Terrorizers must transfer their feelings of threat from the target to the organization and apply ways to control their own outcomes, as opposed to intimidating others, turning their skills into assets along the way. If they cannot, they have to go.
Like the headmaster at an award-winning school, executives must reward and celebrate positive, collaborative conduct and discourage and abolish bullying behavior.
Joining forces with human resources, I’ve previously managed a bully using the above process and it produced results. What about being a bully’s victim, which I recently experienced? A power play, it caught me off guard.
Admit it — most often we are hurt by the offender’s nastiness, but do nothing because we hope they’ll back off or, if possible, we can avoid them. News flash: Usually neither of these works.
You have three choices: 1) endure the browbeating; 2) leave your job, letting the bully win; or 3) confront the bully in a calm mode through your manager or with the help of human resources (particularly if the bully is the boss). No. 3 succeeded for me.
What about my niece Paige? What did she do when she was bullied as a 7-year-old in a new school? A boy had sneeringly said: “You walk funny.” Instead of becoming upset, she calmly replied, “You just need someone to love you.”
I was told the boy was stunned and didn’t bother her again. Way to go, girl! In one sentence she remarkably disarmed her intimidator. Whether you’re the target or a leader witnessing tormenting tactics, don’t cower. Take action and stop bullying now.
Instill a culture of cooperation and collegial conduct. You’ll reap repeated rewards, which include promoting empowered performance, enhancing productivity, reducing turnover and influencing improved workplace integrity, a few of the many things that great leaders — like you — are striving to do.
Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.