Seeing beyond bullying

This blog has been growing on me for a while. I was finally prompted to write it after reading several reports on bullying and harassment in a variety of organisations, including Amnesty International, NHS Highland and KPMG.

I wouldn’t mind betting that everyone has seen or experienced bullying at some point in his or her life. That alone ought to give us pause. Does that mean bullying is an accepted - if unpleasant - part of life? Or does it mean that we owe it to ourselves to take more action to prevent it?

I have had the dubious privilege of investigating several allegations of bullying and harassment at organisations for which I have worked. Like many people I also have personal experience of bullying. I like to think that most people believe it to be unacceptable. I have certainly never come across anyone who suggested that bullying and harassment are behaviours to encourage. Nor have I come across anyone who was willing to admit to engaging in them.

If it is unacceptable, why does bullying often go unchallenged until it has become a systemic issue? A little like a weed in the garden which, when small, can hide among other plants, and only become obvious when it is spreading everywhere, bullying can be difficult to recognise in its early stages. Once it has become a serious enough problem to merit significant attention, it - like a spreading weed - is that much more difficult to remove. It may have sown its seeds everywhere, or have creeping roots that send up new shoots far from the parent plant. (Yes, I am a gardener in my spare time.) What is it that allows bullying to flourish?

Traditional command-and-control management has, for many years, been considered part of life in any size of organisation. If the organisation is a pyramid, with “success” perceived as reaching the top, or as near the top as possible, this can breed behaviours which aim to push competition out of the way in the race to reach the top. Reporting only good news to top management, setting unreasonable targets and blaming other people for failing to meet them, withholding information, reorganising departments to sideline “troublemakers”, making spurious complaints about people who are in the way of your next promotion, are common currency in both private and public organisations. People who are determined to reach the next level in their organisation may put up with bullying in the belief that it will all stop when they get that promotion; those who have just joined and know nothing else may assume that it is entirely normal, and then perpetuate the same behaviours as they become more senior.

I have seen the relentless chasing of targets encourage bullying. Despite the rise of the ethics and compliance function in many large organisations, the chasing of targets and the pursuit of truth through data remain driving forces in achieving and quantifying success. If hitting or exceeding targets is the overriding objective of an organisation, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the way this is done. Mechanisms put in place to measure organisational health can be false friends; many “tick the box” engagement surveys, for example, don’t give employees the opportunity to say what they really think and by their very nature give an incomplete picture of what is going on.

Like that little weed in the corner of the garden, bullying can be subtle. The “accidental” but regular omission of a person from a list of invitees to a meeting, consistent nitpicking, belittling disguised as constructive feedback, unwelcome personal remarks, are common examples. It’s a brave person who complains about these; they leave no visible traces, and it is all too easy to dismiss the recipient as over-sensitive or negative. It is all but impossible to substantiate allegations of bullying when this is the only evidence. So the organisation can be lulled into a false sense of security until the weed has grown larger. Even then it can be mistaken for a legitimate plant. How many times have you heard the phrase “tough management style” used as a euphemism for bullying? If left to its own devices, however, it will get out of hand. I have had to investigate allegations of misconduct in a culture which had become so fearful that everyone sat in their offices with their doors closed and emailed each other rather than talking. As I learned during the investigation, that situation had started with the hire of one individual and had escalated over a number of years, driven by an overwhelming desire to portray a positive picture to those further up the management chain. The bullying, though horrific in itself, was actually a symptom of other problems.

In this instance, the company-wide engagement survey gave no hint that there was anything wrong (during the investigation I found out that managers had been telling their direct reports how to respond to the survey or even standing over them as they did it). Anyone who gave senior managers a hint of the issues in that office would be “managed out” in one way or another; a “brave face” was shown to visitors, while verbal communications in the absence of visitors were typically shouting matches.

The first step in dealing with a situation of that kind is to gain the trust of those affected. The possibility that there may be an issue needs to be acknowledged. This may sound obvious but it can be a huge challenge when the organisation’s energy is being constantly channelled towards pretending there isn’t a problem. It first needs to be done in private, in a safe space - both literally and metaphorically. Understanding what allowed the bullying to happen is the next step - and requires listening, listening, and more listening. Some people refuse to open up at all; others tell you what they think you want to hear. Others will give their perception of the truth. The specific circumstances vary but, in my experience, the lowest common denominator is always fear. Overcoming fear requires openness, compassion, and - once again - listening to all those affected.

Once its existence is out in the open, seeing beyond the bullying is critical. It’s tempting to label people as “bully” or “victim”, but this is limiting and unhelpful; neither label is positive. Changing the organisational structure or removing individuals may be necessary, but these actions on their own will achieve little if those remaining in the organisation, at all levels, are not supported in their attempts to move past what has happened. By seeing beyond the behaviour to the individual and the underlying circumstances, solutions will present themselves. This entails not only a thorough investigation but an ongoing investment of time and energy in rebuilding trust after it is over. Above all, overcoming bullying is a healing process, which should result in a stronger organisation that holds everyone to account. To do this requires patience, compassion, open mindedness, integrity and forgiveness.