Eight steps to stamp out unconscious bullying in your workplace

Eight steps to stamp out unconscious bullying in your workplace

Have you met or managed someone who behaves badly and yet seems oblivious to the consequences of their actions? Have you met the person who is constantly surprised by or resistant to feedback that their approach is unacceptable?

While bullying can be a deliberate act by those with harmful intentions, often the bullies I meet are unaware of the detrimental impact they have on the spirit, dignity and confidence of others.

While of course it’s reasonable to expect people to act consciously and take responsibility for how they affect others, not everyone does. Often I meet people who go about their business largely unaware of how others feel or respond to their approach. Some adopt a harsh attitude reflected in their expectation that people ‘harden up’ or ‘get over’ their concerns.  Many people lack both the awareness and empathy needed to be a successful member of a team.

Clueless managers are at times equally responsible for the impacts some people have on others at work. Have you met or observed a leader who allows bullying to go unchallenged because they themselves fail to recognise what constitutes bullying? Have you observed a leader fail to address bullying because they couldn’t see the real impact of poor behaviour on the team and business?

Tackling the issue

It is every leader’s responsibility to look out for and deal with bullying behaviour. You have a duty of care to protect your staff from harm and provide them with a safe working environment. You have not only a legal but also a moral obligation to act with courage and decency in ensuring nobody is ever bullied in your workplace.

Important steps you must take to address the bullying behaviour of clueless people include:

1. Burst their bubble

Helping people to see themselves and understand that their behavior is unwelcome or unacceptable is an essential first step. Have the honest conversations needed to build awareness of what needs to change and why, as soon as the need becomes evident.  Avoidance and failure to see the issue soon enough are the most common mistakes I observe leaders make in addressing unconscious bullying.

2. Have compassion

Often I observe fear, sadness and insecurity in people who are behaving badly. While of course it is necessary to redress inappropriate conduct it is also true that often the solution lies as much in acting with compassion. Sometimes the most powerful way to help people change is to make them feel understood and cared for.  Standing firm with a non-negotiable expectation that they change their behavior or move on is important; but so too is supporting the bully to understand why they behave the way that they do and resolve the attitudes or emotions that fuel their behavior.

3. Make behaviour matter

Driving bullying from any workplace is only possible when it becomes a non-negotiable priority.  Regardless of any position of power or influence no one should be allowed to bully other people. It takes discipline and a consistent approach to applying a zero tolerance policy to drive bullying from an organisation’s culture. 

4. Understand what bullying is

Know what behaviours you need to remove or safeguard against and those that you need to encourage. Bullying is broadly defined as behaviour that a reasonable person, having regard for the circumstances, would see as unreasonable, including behaviour that is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening. Common sense and a dose of respect, compassion and sensitivity is all that’s needed to know what reasonable means and where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie. 

5. Create a compassionate culture

Inspire people to be kind and act with sensitivity. Encourage your colleagues and staff to be mindful of how they treat others and how they make them feel. Understand that people typically only complain of being bullied when they feel they have serious reason to do so.  If they feel they have a genuine cause for complaint then it’s critical a leader is ready to listen.

6. Lead by example

When the boss is a bully the game is over. From board members to supervisors, expect every leader to provide consistent example of the approach valued and expected.  Banishing bullying starts with taking responsibility for your own conduct and expecting the same from every other leader across the business.

7. Educate

Set clear expectations of desirable standards of conduct. Spend time communicating what is considered acceptable in your workplace as well as in the eyes of the law.  Ensure people understand what constitutes bullying and what they can do if it occurs.

8. Inspire personal ownership

Encourage people to look out for one another and challenge bullying behaviour they experience or observe. Healthy workplace cultures rely on every member of the team playing a role and calling out bullying when it occurs.

Karen Gately is the founder of human resources firm Ryan Gately. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A practical guide to getting the best from people and The Corporate Dojo: Driving extraordinary results through spirited people.

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