February 23, 2016

Do You Work With A Bully? #PinkShirtDay


February 24th, 2016 is #PinkShirtDay. It’s when sane people come together to make aware and to prevent less than sane people from bullying, be it at school, the workplace, the neighbourhood, the hockey rink, and all points in between.

I remember a period in my life as a 10 year-old when one of the neighbourhood boys was being a bully. He was four years older than me—roughly 20 pounds heavier and four inches taller—and for a few months seemed to amuse himself by picking on me any chance he could get. If there was a road hockey game being played on the street with the neighbourhood children, he’d purposely check me hard into the ground chuckling to himself afterward. The game was supposed to be contact free.

Wayne Gretzky he wasn’t.

One day during a game of hide and seek, he snuck up behind me and shoved dirty, wet leaves in my face. Shenanigans continued like this until one day I snapped. While playing with him and a few other kids in our backyard, unprovoked, I calmly walked up to him and said, “You’ve had this coming for a while now” and proceeded to punch him square in the nose. I was channeling the pent-up frustration and anger of the previous weeks into an almighty wallop. It was the first, and to this day, the last time I ever hit anyone. It felt good, too.

pink-shirt1Similar experiences to my encounter with the neighbourhood bully seem to be cropping up in today’s workplace. According to Dr. Carroll M. Brodsky in The Harassed Worker, workplace bullying refers to “repeated and persistent attempts by one person to torment, wear down, frustrate or get a reaction from another. It is treatment which persistently provokes, pressures, frightens, intimidates or otherwise discomforts another person.”

It sounds a lot like my former neighbour.

Researchers published an influential paper titled “Metaphors of Workplace Bullying: Nightmares, Demons, and Slaves” where they surfaced further ammunition to our already loaded gun of workplace bullying as a cause to employee disengagement. In it the authors note:

Based on qualitative data gathered from focus groups, narrative interviews, and target drawings, the analysis describes how bullying can feel like a battle, water torture, nightmare, or noxious substance. Abused workers frame bullies as narcissistic dictators, two-faced actors, and devil figures. Employees targeted with workplace bullying liken themselves to vulnerable children, slaves, prisoners, animals, and heartbroken lovers.

This sounds even worse than my former neighbour.

In the January-February 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review, authors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson published data on the topic of workplace bullying or as they elegantly define it: “workplace incivility.” Through research and the collection of data points—after polling thousands of employees concerning the manner in which they are treated at work—Porath and Pearson found 98% of employees at some point in their working life were a victim of uncivil behavior while on the job.

More distressing is that over a thirteen-year period between 1998 and 2011, the percentage of workers who reported being treated rudely at least once a week while at work rose from 25% to 50%. It’s not quite like my childhood bullying example, but a lack of civility in your place of work is the modern-day adult equivalent.

pinkkindnesspngWhat happens to workers who are impacted by bullies and incivility in the workplace?

Much like the bottom-line consequences of a disengaged organization—where disengaged and not engaged employees hamper profitability and customer satisfaction—there are performance and productivity related issues.

As a leader, you no doubt see the financial implications to such a predicament. Those factors uncovered by researchers include:

  •   47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work
  •   80% lost work time worrying about the incident
  •   66% said their performance declined
  •   78% said their commitment to the organization declined
  •   25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers

What’s the bottom line?

Workplace bullies are not only causing employees to be disengaged, they are creating performance and productivity related issues that are likely causing harm to one’s career development.

What occurs when an employee feels threatened at work?

It accentuates the negative aspects of the organization and does nothing to help the employee see the positives of the role or situation. Workplace pride becomes an impossibility or an illusion at best.

As a leader, you might want to observe and pay attention to the bullies in your organization. Those bullies may be part of the reason employees are disillusioned with their prospects of finding meaning or purpose in their place of work.

pinkbullyThat stated, leaders are capable (and culpable) of bullying as well. To me, bullying is simply another term for “command and control” when that method of leadership is employed by the leader. Leaders who believe it’s their managerial right to flash the “I have a more senior title than you” card to ensure a decision goes in their favour or who aim to demonstrate to a larger audience that they are “the boss” are, in fact, another version of corporate incivility.

For example, a few years ago, two different members of a team separately approached me one week, asking for help. Their boss had decided to publicly berate both of them at different points during an all-hands team meeting. There were roughly 50 people in the meeting. The individuals were humiliated. One cried uncontrollably to me over the phone as he/she wondered aloud why the verbal lashing was necessary in the first place. In fact, this particular person felt as though the negative feedback was completely unfounded. The other wanted to take vengeance with some form of a smear campaign.

In this case, and many more, a formal complaint sent into the HR department (or the Workplace Discrimination Officer, if there is such a bureau in one’s place of work) is the first course of action, and one I suggested. Leaders who ridicule or admonish employees in open meetings—whether on a conference call or face-to-face—are no different from my old neighbour. They’re a disgrace, and should be reported. (I don’t advise the knuckle sandwich approach of my youth to combat your corporate bully problem.)

Leaders who poach internal employees from another team—without being proactive and discussing the opportunity or situation in advance—are another type of corporate bully. It’s a form of peer-to-peer bullying, as often the individual thinks he/she can use pure, unadulterated force to get what they want to build their own team.

Leaders who make impossible demands on deadlines, who set up their staff for inevitable failure, and who take credit for the positive results an individual or team created without said leader’s involvement, are also facsimiles of corporate bullies.

Leaders who cancel a meeting at the last-minute, never to reschedule again, are inflicting another form of hierarchical bullying. We might call this calendar bullying.

If any of the examples mentioned ring a bell, perhaps it is time to come face to face with the possibility you (or your leader) may possess characteristics of workplace incivility, if not bullying outright. Unfortunately, this is leading to the potential for workplace dissatisfaction. It most certainly is not paving a way towards a purposeful and engaged mindset for many employees at work.

Workplace incivility and corporate bullies can be a problem. If you are in such a scenario, it just may be time to turn inaction into action.

Let’s stamp out bullying once and for all.

PS. Kudos to my friend Jennifer Schaeffers for continuing to champion the #PinkShirtDay cause in British Columbia.


Dan Pontefract’s next book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization, will publish May 10, 2016. He is Chief Envisioner of TELUS Transformation Office.

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