Director CAOS Conflict Management
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Bullying in the workplace: thinking outside of the bullying box

In the second part of his content series on bullying in the workplace, Alan Sharland explores how peer-to-peer resolution and conflict coaching can address the issue of bullying more effectively than lengthy investigations. 

8th Jan 2020
Director CAOS Conflict Management
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Depressed black woman leader suffering from gender discrimination at work
iStock/fizkes

In my first article in this series, I looked at the reasons why harassment, as a legally defined behaviour is significantly different to bullying which is more ‘ghost-like’ because it is not legally defined and so proving its existence is extremely problematic and rarely achieved.

Mediation and conflict coaching avoid the ambiguity around bullying because their focus is not on proving it has occurred but on supporting the repair of the specific features of a broken workplace relationship.

Unfortunately, attempting to prove the existence of bullying remains the most common approach to dealing with difficulties at work because most guidance on difficult workplace relationships treats bullying and harassment as if they are ‘much the same’.

This article explains why the three processes of mediation, ‘supporting peer-to-peer resolution’ as a management skill and conflict coaching are more appropriate and effective alternatives when the difficult workplace behaviours are not subject to legal action.

Why are they more appropriate and effective?

Mediation and conflict coaching are processes specifically designed for situations where there is not a clearly defined legal issue at stake.

This is true in neighbour disputes over hedges and parking, and the many other issues that can arise in that context. It is true in stressful family breakdown situations where sibling rivalry, parent/teenager relationships and parent-to-parent difficulties in which there will rarely be any illegality in the actions that have occurred. Furthermore, it is true in most workplace relationship disputes as well.

If those involved are willing to come together in a mediation meeting then the consequences will often be resolution of the issues and a reparation of the work relationship. 

Where assessment of any of these contexts has established that no illegal activity or breach of other legislation has occurred, there is little that any organisation or authority can do to ‘take action’ against or on behalf of those involved. The difficulty still exists, however, and usually those involved will resent the organisation for its unavoidable, but necessary impotence in such situations.

If actions are taken, they will often lead to further complications rather than resolution and improvement of the situation. These can include:

  • ‘Movement sideways’ of one or both employees involved so that they don’t continue to work together – often leading to complaints of unfair treatment and the risk of grievance procedures and other complaints about the organisational response to the original issue.
     
  • ‘Lasting it out’ until one or more involved leaves the organisation or takes long-term absence due to stress and associated illness.
     
  • Sometimes an employee will be made redundant, but because it is not on the basis of proven gross misconduct or harassment it is accepted as a ‘lesser of two evils’ that a long and drawn out Employment Tribunal over wrongful dismissal is likely, with a damage and cost limitation exercise as the aim.

The effective alternatives

Mediation and conflict coaching avoid the ambiguity around bullying because their focus is not on proving it has occurred but on supporting the repair of the specific features of a broken workplace relationship. They help those involved to create more effective behaviours, actions and better relationships that are sustainable for the future.

This video discusses some ways in which this can occur.

When I provide mediation or conflict coaching and I meet with someone involved in a dispute who says ‘my colleague/boss is a bully’, my question in response to that statement is, ‘what is it that they do that leads you to describe them as a bully?’ Their answers will be as varied as:

  • “They stand over me while I’m working and continuously nit-pick and micro-manage me. It’s embarrassing and humiliating, they treat me like a naughty child. I’ve been doing this job for seven years!”
     
  • “They shout and scream and swear and it’s frightening. They are doing it just to intimidate me and because they just like the sound of their own voice. They’re an arrogant pig and they’re making my life hell!”
     
  • “They keep overlooking me for promotion and ignore my contributions in meetings and take credit for all my hard work. I think it’s because I’m [protected characteristic] but they’ve never actually said anything [- ist], so I can’t prove it”.

All of these statements have within them the potential for creating change because they are not focusing on whether the behaviour is or is not ‘bullying’ but on the specific behaviours that are a concern. This allows questions such as:

  • What would you want to happen instead?
  • How might that be possible?
  • What support would you need for that?
  • What communication has there been about the situation?
  • What could enable that communication to happen if it hasn’t so far? Or perhaps, what meant that communication didn’t work the first time?
  • What could enable you to bring about the changes you want?
  • What have you been able to do to support yourself in the situation even while it is continuing to happen?

These questions, and others that follow on from the answers, are all focused on what the person involved can do for themselves irrespective of whether the other person is involved or not.  

When are these processes introduced?

Mediation and conflict coaching may be used after recognition that an ongoing investigation is proving fruitless and the situation is becoming progressively more stressful and debilitating for the reasons previously identified. They can also be used before a situation has escalated to a point that an investigation is normally considered.

In my own experience it is almost always the case that a broken workplace relationship is re-directed by those involved towards a more respectful and productive working relationship as a consequence of using these approaches.

Both processes are ideally available as an option in parallel to any adversarial procedure that is taking place and should be continuously available as a voluntary alternative throughout the life of any dispute.

If those involved are willing to come together in a mediation meeting then the consequences will often be resolution of the issues and a reparation of the work relationship. Importantly, these are outcomes created by those directly involved and not imposed by a third party.

Supporting peer-to-peer resolution

Mediation isn’t essential for this to happen, however. A manager may have the skills to facilitate a conversation in such a way that they are not trying to fix the relationship breakdown for the staff involved, but instead supports them in doing it for and by themselves.

This is what I describe as ‘supporting peer-to-peer resolution’ – skills that draw upon a mediation approach but which do not require the formality of a mediation process.

Such meetings will involve difficult conversations with strong words and feelings being expressed, but as long as there is not directly abusive language nor ‘shouting over’ each other, then a stage can be reached when issues are ‘better out than in’ and the pieces of the broken relationship can be seen, reviewed and re-formed into a better way of relating in the future.

Conflict coaching

It is not essential that those involved meet in a mediation meeting or a meeting effectively facilitated by a manager. Any person involved can be helped to create their own different responses via conflict coaching that can have a significant impact on the situation whether the other person wishes to participate in creating change or not.

For example:

  • A criticised manager can be helped to review how they manage their staff and be supported through the experience of being criticised towards responding constructively and not defensively.
     
  • A concerned team member who is experiencing difficult behaviour, or observing it in others, can be supported in looking at how to raise concerns assertively and constructively rather than destructively and perhaps abusively – a capacity that any competent team leader or manager would welcome.

There will often be doubts expressed about the likelihood of these approaches working. (Although this is rarely compared with the likelihood of an investigation working!) In my own experience it is almost always the case that a broken workplace relationship is re-directed by those involved towards a more respectful and productive working relationship as a consequence of using these approaches.

Letting go of the idea of ‘bullying’ allows for a more bespoke focus on the particular and unique issues within any workplace relationship breakdown. Supporting those involved in creating their own answers to their difficulties helps to build a more resilient and effective team environment and respects the capacity that each of us has to grow through a conflict and not remain stuck within it.

As French philosopher Joseph Joubert once said: “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory but progress”.  

Interested in this topic? Read Bullying in the workplace: how to monitor and manage unacceptable behaviour.

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