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Stamping out bullying in the workplace

Have you been bullied at work? For some, this would seem a ridiculous question. Others might understand it happens occasionally, even if they’ve never experienced it.

Nevertheless, bullying should be centre stage. The examples we do hear about are disturbing: there are allegations that one boss forced a colleague to stand out on a balcony in the rain, another made derogatory comments and a third forced juniors to hug them. And one business loan provider found that 23 per cent of the British workforce have been bullied at work.

When organisations uncover bullying, their responses are similar. They hold an inquiry, revamp their policies and punish the ‘few’ bad apples. They then look at their complaints procedures and set up anonymous reporting hotlines. Although no-one would argue with these steps, they’re about reacting to failure, rather than prevention.

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So, how do organisations stamp out bullying before serious incidents occur?

Based on our experience of helping organisations adapt their culture, we’ve identified five steps to preventing bullying:

1. Make tolerance and inclusiveness a priority

It isn’t enough to simply say what we want to avoid, we must be clear about what we want to achieve. Research has shown that people in the ‘middle’ and ‘bottom’ of organisations that aren’t open and tolerant hold back ideas to avoid risking their prospects. And that means they work at a fraction of their capabilities.

So, it’s essential to be inclusive and tolerant. This needs to be an organisation’s cultural priority and something the board mandates.

2. Listen deeply to understand what is happening

The Harvard Business Review has also shown the power of deep listening. Their research suggests that listening enhances the recipient’s feeling of wellbeing, making them feel valued and connected, regardless of whether you agree with them.

Active listening is about understanding people’s experience and what enabled bullying to take place. Organisations need to listen through engagement surveys, focus groups and leadership ‘fireside chats’, and act on the feedback. If we don’t understand our organisation, we can’t understand why things happen.

3. Ensure leaders lead

Leaders set the tone for the whole organisation by what they do. When they ask for colleagues’ opinions and are open to challenge and give feedback, the impact on how people think, feel and behave is astounding. People across the organisation mimic the behaviours of those in charge.

4. Learn from good behaviours

Organisations tend to focus on where things go wrong, enhancing the negative. It’s important to find the great examples where bullying never happens or people have stood against it, and to celebrate positive behaviours. This is about shining a light on the people who get it right and learning how to replicate such success.

5. Design the system to support the correct behaviours

It’s not enough to simply deal with ‘failure’ when bullying occurs. We need to design the system for success. This is about recruiting people who demonstrate the right behaviours, developing people who lead the right way and rewarding people who are role models. Too often we see bad behaviours ignored because those concerned are seen to deliver. In contrast, the best organisations reward people not just on what they achieve, but how they achieve it.

We must stamp out workplace bullying now

It’s important, but not enough, to update policies. People need to feel empowered to speak truth to power and say ‘no’. Organisations that get this right will stop the wrong behaviours and encourage ones that harness the collective intelligence of their people. Is your organisation up for the challenge?

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