Professional mediator and coach Gunn Consultancy
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The dangers of manager bullies and how to combat them

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To mark Anti-Bullying Week 2021, Jane Gunn explores what to do when the manager is the bully. Junior colleagues often don’t have a safe space to report bullying and it can be incredibly hard for HR professionals to address the issues.

15th Nov 2021
Professional mediator and coach Gunn Consultancy
Columnist
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When the manager is the bully, junior colleagues often don’t have a safe space to report bullying and it can be incredibly hard for HR professionals to address the issues. This is made worse if the bullying behaviour has been ignored or glossed over in the past because bullying may have become embedded in the culture.

As staff who themselves were bullied climb the ranks, they may believe it is indeed their turn to throw their weight around. Stopping the cycle starts with having a safe space and a constructive process for reporting and managing bullying behaviour. 

The danger of the manager bully

Manager bullies are the biggest concern as junior staff are often expected to raise issues with the very person who is bullying them. This can lead to bullying going unreported often for months or even years in some cases.

As a result, the work culture can become toxic, where stress and distress result in loss of motivation, sick leave and high staff turnover. The bully, the very person who ought to leave, is often the one person who survives the resulting chaos. 

The importance of the safe place

Creating a safe space for staff to report bullying behaviour is of vital importance. Staff must feel that their physical and psychological health, as well as confidentiality, is being protected at all times.

Ensuring that the reporting process is made clear to staff. It must include considerations such as physical location, so that staff are not made to feel vulnerable because there is a risk of the meeting being overheard or commented upon. There also needs to be clear choices of whom to report bullying to.

Why values count

The stated values of an organisation often do not match the way people actually treat each other. 

For example, when an organisation promotes its values, on its website or elsewhere, or when we as individuals tell other people the values we use to deal with a difficult situation, that is our Espoused Theory. But those values can be very different from the way we react in the heat of the moment.

The values and assumptions that actually guide our behaviour, especially in challenging situations, creates what is called our Theory-In-Action. In other words, we do not always behave as we say we would or know we ought to.

We need to live and breathe our values – whether on an individual or company level – for them to be authentic and to work. So, what stops any of us and in particular a senior manager, from resorting to Theory-In-Action or bullying behaviour? The answer is accountability.

Bullies often feel the need to exercise or exert control over someone else may resort to their Theory-In-Action

Accountability is at the heart of resolution

When faced with a situation that is potentially threatening or embarrassing, a bully who feels the need to exercise or exert control over someone else may resort to their Theory-In-Action – especially if they know they will not be held accountable. This means they will do whatever feels convenient or comfortable in the moment.

So, a senior leader who is inclined to use bullying behaviour towards junior members of staff because that is their modus operandi will continue to do so, unless they are accountable for the consequences of their behaviour.

And so, the question, especially when it comes to bullying behaviour is, is it possible to hold senior managers accountable and at the same time, make it safe for employees to report such behaviour? We need to go back to the importance of values.

People can be held accountable and reminded when they do not act in accordance with the Manifesto in the best interests of everyone.

Values in Action – A M.A.P. to Guide Us

Colleagues need to be guided by and committed to the same principles, to be supportive of each other in seeking to overcome the challenges they face together and to be accountable if they choose not to uphold these values.

The first step is for an organisation to have absolute clarity around their corporate values; to be clear what behaviour is expected because of them and the consequences if those values are not upheld.

The best way to do this is with a Manifesto And Pledge. A Manifesto sets out the values and beliefs (intentions, motives or views), that the organisation espouses. 

A Pledge is simply a promise, made by everyone, at all levels of the organisation, to act in line with the Manifesto. It means that those people who have signed up or agreed can be held accountable and reminded when they do not act in accordance with the Manifesto in the best interests of everyone.

A Plan or Framework for Resolution

The second step is to create a clear process or framework for resolution. This might include seeking several less adversarial approaches as well as asking for the help of a mediator or conflict coach.

It is sometimes known as an escalation clause and the idea is to give both manager and employee the opportunity to discuss the situation in a safe space and not directly with each other.

For example earlier this year, I worked with an organisation where an anonymous staff survey had revealed bullying to be an issue. We worked together to create a more collaborative and less toxic culture by:

  • Clarifying corporate values

  • Creating a Manifesto and Pledge

  • Designing a Conflict Management Framework

  • Training all staff to get buy-in from top to bottom

The ability to weed out bullies and create a safe space for employees to report bullying behaviour depends on creating clarity around corporate culture and how it supports employees.

In situations where there are allegations of bullying, both clarity and safety can be achieved by creating a M.A.P and a Plan. Gaining the commitment and accountability of all staff to uphold organisational values and providing processes that enable safe reporting and options for resolution is the key to reducing the potential for bullying and a toxic culture.

Interested in this topic? Read Five ways HR leaders can help banish a bullying culture

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