How do we get rid of workplace bullies?

I teach a behavioral approach on how to eliminate abusive behavior. Bullying is a behavior – it needs a behavioral solution.

How we can get rid of workplace bullies when those bullies are workplace leaders?  

Well – it depends. Are they the ultimate boss? If so – you can’t. If they are a middle manager and have people above them – you can, but ONLY if upper management supports the effort and understands how their responses either support behavior elimination or support the continuation of the behavior.  In other words, people need to learn what actually works to get unwanted behaviors to stop and to take their role in making that happen seriously.

If you're a workplace that has turned a toxic culture around, how did you do it? 

I was hired once to fix a toxic volunteer culture at a nonprofit. Staff volunteer relations were toxic. Volunteers thought their job was to spy on staff and turn them in for malfeasance. The result is no staff wanted to work with volunteers.  When I came in – I created job descriptions for volunteers and did a training on what we expected them to do. Most were quite happy to actually be of help. Only one person was not. We gave that person time to adjust to the new role expectations and when she failed – we fired her.  She attempted to retaliation (which is normal and predicted using a behavioral model) and she failed.

Relationships and culture improved from there.  The big thing I did – was I recruited volunteers willing to help me change the culture and staff members who were willing to experiment with the volunteers. I helped the people with good intentions willing to experiment and reset the relationships. I helped them work through initial difficulties and trust issues until – they were working well together as a team. As I had success with individuals – other staff members requested I help them too. At each stage – I put in the time to coach and help the participants – establish positive working relationships.  We went from 10 volunteers with toxic relationships to 500 volunteers working in every part of the agency – including our law enforcement aspects (we were an animal welfare agency in CA).  My volunteers put in over 20,000 hours a year – which was the equivalent of 10 full time employees.   Let me help you understand this. 1 toxic volunteer was costing us 10 full time employees! That’s a lot of lost productivity. Now think of how much damage one toxic employee can do. It’s important to tax this seriously and put in the work required to reset relationships and build trust.

What advice do you have for companies to do the same?

1. Be realistic. I get calls all the time from companies who ask me to train a toxic employee to be less toxic. I can’t do that. No one can.  If you want to fix the problem, you have to take responsibility for fixing it. There is no magic way to fix it and you can’t offload the problem either.
2. Take responsibility for fixing the problem. If you want to eliminate toxic workplaces you must eliminate the toxic individuals. And then, you have to do the work to re-establish trust in the teams and between people. This takes time and effort and if you don’t put the time and effort it – it won’t happen.
3. Don’t assume people are toxic. Most people want to be in positive work relationships and respond well to coaching. Always go in assuming people will surprise you and will respond well to support and coaching. But if someone does not – eliminate them.

What role does HR need to do (and step up to) to stop bullying?

HR needs to help upper management learn what exactly needs to happen to get bullying to stop. That means – if they don’t know exactly how to get unwanted behavior like bullying to stop – they need to learn it – because until they know the behavioral science behind how to get unwanted behaviors to stop  - they won’t be able to help upper management. Often – all that is required is tweaks to some of the systems, a compassionate attitude and consistency. The first step is to learn the behavioral science so you can make those tweaks.

Who needs to be involved? 

If upper management is not on board – any effort to  change culture will fail. Bullies will not be eliminated.

HR needs to be involved to help create the processes that help support the change and the improved methods for stopping bullying behavior and resetting relationships. Again – what needs to happen to reset relationships – is time intensive. And – some people – won’t respond to coaching  - so having compassion based processes to help people learn to behave better and to eliminate them if they don’t – are what HR should be helping with.

Middle managers need to be trained on these new processes and they need to be coached on how to properly handle problems as they arise. Middle managers are the key. You either help them succeed or the initiative fails.

What do they need to do? What resources should be in place?

Everyone needs to be trained on how to eliminate unwanted behaviors and how to reward wanted behaviors and people need to have a clear understanding of what exactly those behaviors are that we are reinforcing and rewarding and what exactly to do when an unwanted behavior occurs. So – a training on behavior modification is needed along with ongoing support and coaching so that middle managers can actually reset relationships and build positive trusting teams. HR and upper management need to know what to do if – a middle manager is a bully and how they handle their non-compliance with the new processes. Everyone should be on the same page – because – when it comes to eliminating unwanted behavior – consistency is key.

Let me know if I can be of any further help. I have a variety of online programs that teach these techniques – and also do in person trainings.

What is ideal might not be possible, but it's still worth thinking about

Discussing what should be done - is worthwhile - it's part of critical thinking.  Yes, you should be critical - but you also have to be idealistic - otherwise, how will you know whether any given solution - is good or not?

What transforms a manager into a leader?

One of the main things I think helps – is having a philosophic conversation on what it means to be a good manager. Often – management training is about – processes and reporting expectations.

What transforms a manager into a leader – is actually philosophy. Giving people time to think about what the ethical thing to do is. How to use ethics to help motivate people to do good work. How to use ethics to set goals that people can rally around and want to work for.  Ethical philosophy is perhaps the most underrated skill but it’s what distinguishes a leader from a manager.

What I like to see is activities that pose questions and allow participants to have ethical discussions about what a good solution might look like. Or what is an ideal ethical method for dealing with a lying employee for instance. The great thing about ethics is that the best way to teach it is to pose questions and let people – think and discuss it.

I have online courses – and a new book on this actually – Applied Humanism: How to create more effective and ethical businesses.

Also - check out this online course:

Positive Psychology and the words "No" and Stop

Spoke to teacher, she asked about positive psychology – not allowed to use the word no or stop – as they are negative.

First – words aren’t negative. They are just arbitrary sounds. How you respond can be positive, negative or neutral.

Second, if you positively reinforce a word – it becomes positive, not negative.

Third, Stop and No – should be used as deltas and positively reinforced when the child or person responds positively to it – that’s how you create a positive association with the word instead of a negative one.

Fourth – you may not be able to totally do this – as others probably do use these words as negatives and negatively reinforce them.

Regardless – you do need delta’s and bridges. You just aren’t supposed to respond to a positive response to a delta using a negative response. You want to positively respond to the correct behavior once a delta is issued. All a delta is – is – that wasn’t correct – stop and reset.

Basically focusing on the words and not whether you are positively or negatively  responding to them – IS the problem.

Finally – this isn’t “new” – behavioralists have been studying this forever. Every time I come across a positive parenting or positive psychology person – it’s like – they just discovered behavioral psychology – read up on it and don’t fully understand it – but they start teaching it anyway.

I was apprenticed in this and it’s frustrating to listen to teachers who have been through a positive psychology training – a person with a background in clinical psychology a) not have been exposed to behavioral psychology at all and b) not be taught behavioral psychology properly!  It underpins everything. Seriously. It does.

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