In fact, the very notion that there can be effective interventions into bullying behavior is anathema in much of the
popular press – a narrow view that is challenged with the
paradigm shift proposed here.
Third: “bullying” has become a “waste-basket term to
define unresolved workplace disputes.” That’s the experience of Dr. Doron Samuell, CEO of Corporate Health
Services in Australia, who calls bullying “the default label
for preventable workplace conflict.” The seriousness of
the bullying experience is diluted by those who consider
every disagreement or conflict, every case of innocuous
bantering or managerial directive, as bullying. The very
serious abusive behaviors experienced by numerous
employees are trivialized with a term so ubiquitous as to
be nearly meaningless.
We can learn a lot from Australia, whose workplace
anti-bullying law implemented on January 1, 2014 contains
both clear language and an enviable expedited process.
In its first quarter of operation the Fair Work Commission,
the body charged with assessing and addressing claims
of workplace bullying, received 151 claims. Of these, one
single order to cease bullying was issued. The commission dismissed seven claims, 32 were withdrawn, and
16 situations were resolved in the course of the process;
presumably there has been no final disposition of the
The Fair Work Commission understandably focused on
clarifying the jurisdiction, parameters, and language of the
law, including the meaning of “reasonable management
action” which helps define what bullying is not. It’s important for workers to know the difference between tough
supervision or incivility and bullying. But that still leaves
lots of people experiencing loads of pain, and plenty of
businesses losing lots of productivity.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, Tennessee enacted the
nation’s first workplace anti-bullying law on May 22,
2014 in a version that was significantly watered down
from the original. This Pyrrhic victory was promptly fol-
lowed by the governors of New Hampshire and Puerto
Rico vetoing similar legislation. Governor Maggie Has-
san of New Hampshire cited the bill’s “poorly defined
and unworkable provisions” with potentially actionable
conduct including vague and subjective complaints of
“unreasonable workload” or “constant and unreason-
able criticism.” Hassan also criticized the bill’s elimination
of mediation as an intervention to resolve any workplace
complaints termed “bullying.”
Perhaps legislation is appropriate on the upper end of
a continuum of options to address abusive behaviors in
the workplace when internal interventions are ignored or
ineffective. And perhaps policies can be a useful tool for
clarification and process. But I trust that by now you, too,
are alert to the limitations imposed on taking action when
attention is elsewhere. Could you imagine the poten-
tial productive outcomes if the considerable time and
energy expended on legislation, litigation and language
were focused on resources to support early identifica-
tion and effective intervention, resolution and prevention
of interpersonal behaviors that workers of all levels find
problematic, misunderstood, inappropriate, or hurtful?
To introduce the antidote, I’ll ask you to suspend your
use of the words “bullying,” “bully,” and “victim.” Let’s listen to how this conversation may evolve.
Bill, step into my office. Let’s discuss a concern
one of your direct reports shared with me.
Do you remember last week’s project
presentation with our execs? I’d like you to
recall what you can about the session. Do you
have an idea of who might have a concern
about this meeting, and why? Right, it was
Vicki. OK for me to report her concern?
She said that you took credit for the work
project without mentioning her contribution,
which she believed was considerable. Does
anything about her version of events ring
true? She said she was upset and from her
perspective this was not the first time she felt
acknowledgment was lacking – she shared a
couple of other recent incidents with me that
I’d like to review with you as well. Is this a
realistic perception on her part?
Before these incidents, how was your
relationship? She says her work is always high
quality and on time and that she often seeks
additional assignments but lately she’s feeling
unappreciated. From where you sit, is there
any issue we need to address regarding work
performance or attitude? If not, and I’m asking
you to search your soul here, what might have
precipitated your comments?
Oh, you’re feeling pressured because your
performance review is coming up and your
team’s productivity is down? That’s an important
insight. Understanding that burden, what do you
feel you could have done differently with Vicki?
Are you open to hearing her point of view?
What support do you need to take next steps
with Vicki? How can we help you cope with the
pressure you’re under?
This scenario touches the three inquiries – behavioral,
situational, and motivational - that will forever change