Workplace Bullying: What Leaders Should Know (and How to Address It)

Kat Rippy recently sat down with Catherine Mattice, the Founder and CEO of Civility Partners on The Everyday Leader Podcast to talk about her work with workplace bullying and culture change.

Through her work, Catherine has devoted her career to creating workplace cultures where bad behaviors are replaced with positive ones and all employees are comfortable, respected and can thrive.

Click here or the image below to listen to our podcast with Catherine. For the highlights from the insightful conversation we had with Catherine, keep reading.

Workplace Bullying Is Far More Common That You Would Imagine

Employees in over half of all workplaces have either witnessed or experienced bullying, making it far more prevalent than the official research suggests. There is no type of organization which appears exempt to the phenomenon, which has exploded in recent years, and affects employees at all levels and is perpetrated by all levels.

Moreover, it is very often undefined, overlooked and normalized.

Because bullying takes many forms—ranging from emotional duress to outright disrespect and disregard to abusive management styles—very often the bullying is not even apparent on the surface. In fact, it is often on employee reflection after hearing the reports that they realize that they, too, have been the victims of workplace abuse.

All Bullies Tend to Have Similar Identifiable Characteristics

While bullying cuts across the spectrum of organization types, the perpetrators all exhibit similar traits.

Catherine identifies three main characteristics that abrasive leaders bring to the table:

  1. They lack social and emotional intelligence, so they don’t understand the extent of the damage that they are causing. They often know that they are seen as hard or tough managers, but they don’t understand how deep the damage runs.
  2. They live in a world of hyper-anxiousness around being perfect/appearing as uber-competent. So much so, that when they perceive someone to be incompetent, it makes them anxious because it makes them feel threatened to their abilities and consequently makes them feel incompetent. And because they lack social and emotional intelligence, they lash out and without understanding the damage.
  3. PLOT TWIST: they actually care. In coaching bullies, Catherine has found that bullies and abrasive leaders very much care about the organization (which is ironic and counterintuitive based on the way that they treat people). Very often, their behavior is coming from a place of wanting the organization to be successful.

Risk Factors That Allow Negative Behaviors to Thrive

Just like sexual harassment or discrimination, there are risk factors that allow toxic behaviors to unravel and get escalate over time.

Some organizational norms that facilitate the opportunity to bully include:

  1. The organization isn’t paying close attention to the behavior of their managers, or
  2. People ignore or excuse their behavior because they tend to be perfectionists and high-producers, and are therefore seen as valuable to the organization.
  3. Being in a high-stress environment or industry where there employees are fixated on numbers, sales, or competition.
  4. Tenure. Because there is a perception that a newly-minted employee might usurp their status within the organization, people seen as high-value and/or long-standing employees often resort to bullying, often resulting in the newcomer exiting the business as the aggravation makes the situation untenable.

The Organization Has to Be the Driver of Culture Change

If the culture of bullying is to be eliminated in the organization, the organization itself must want the change and be willing to hold the offending parties accountable. Only when the organization is starting to be demonstrably affected by the culture of bullying, only then will it take any and all steps required to eliminate it and restore a positive work environment.

The reality is that people are really hurt, and there are real feelings there that the organization needs to help them deal with. Managers, leaders, and higher-ups all need to start stepping in a lot earlier on.

Truth Bomb: You’re Probably Part of the Problem

Abrasive leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s just only about the person who filed a hostile work environment complaint—it spreads throughout the organization like an infectious disease. And if you’re not stopping it, you’re enabling it.

Abrasive leaders are allowed to be disrespectful because every person around them has granted them permission (albeit indirectly) to act that way.

Employee involvement in the change process is imperative, as the company seeks to build bridges and come up with ideas which will enhance the culture shift.

How to Take Steps in the Right Direction

As Catherine mentioned in the podcast episode, workplace bullying often stems deep-rooted issues, so putting a bandaid on it simply won’t do it (cough cough harassment trainings!).

Here are some tips for leaders who are interested in creating a positive work environment where people can feel safe, valued, equally valued and included:

To really embrace culture change, Catherine recommends that organizations:

  • Develop a strategic action plan related to the climate survey results
  • Start building bridges between employees & leaders through trust-building initiatives
  • Hold performance management meetings more than once a year. Bye bye annual meetings, hello frequent and more casual check-ins!
  • Ask people who are at higher levels to go below – start walking around more! Communication should not be flowing strictly from the top – the director should be talking to the people at the bottom. The more that leadership makes their presence known, the more they can build trust with those people at the bottom, and the more people will feel comfortable speaking up.
  • Partake in a climate survey to understand the real picture. Climate surveys are not to be confused with engagement surveys, says Catherine. Engagement only measures enthusiasm about an organization and whether employees fit in and like it there. Climate surveys measure all of the ugly stuff that most organizations don’t want to know about.

BONUS TIP: Be careful where your data comes from! Make sure you’re asking the right questions, and DON’T forget to split it up by demographics. Many times there are ongoing themes within certain marginalized groups, and it is those insights and highly important.

Last but Not Least…Speak Up!

People need to speak up, whether the bullying affects them personally or not. It might be your turn next, and it is often silence that emboldens the bully to persist with their anti-social activity. Every individual has the power to make a decision that they will not allow bullying to affect their life. Whether through an individual exit or filing suit against the perpetrator and by extension, the organization, or lobbying for legislative or social change, the option to participate in the culture change are myriad.

Catherine’s Quoteable:

“I believe that it is an employer’s moral and ethical responsibility to create an environment where people are comfortable and where they can drive.”