Research indicates that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion every year when considering lost productivity, claims, medical or other expenses. As many as one in five people have been subject to workplace bullying at some stage during their career.
While deliberate acts of bullying are all too common, so too are the harmful impacts of thoughtless behaviours. A lack of empathy, self-control and tact leads to instances of bullying that organisations often fail to recognise.
Reflect for a moment on the extent to which standards of behaviour truly matter in your organisation. Be honest with yourself about the extent to which you allow bullying behaviour to breed. For example, do you promote people who behave poorly into more senior roles? Do you ignore aggressive behaviour because people are otherwise performing well? Do you allow leaders to adopt an unreasonably demanding, insensitive or hostile approach to leading their teams?
It takes more than just good intentions to create a bully-free workplace.
Here are five of the most important steps you can take to avoid breeding bullies:
1. Lead by example
Reflect on the influence you have on the way people feel and behave. Do you behave respectfully? Do you provide a good example of the way you expect other leaders to behave? What behaviours do you reward and recognise? How do the decisions you make reflect the values you espouse?
The simple truth is the way you behave has the greatest influence on whether people experience bullying at work. The behaviours you demonstrate, tolerate, reward and recognise matter equally. Hold yourself and every member of your leadership team accountable for behaving in ways that have a positive impact on the culture and wellbeing of your organisation.
2. See the problem
Failure to recognise the impacts of poor behaviour is a common reason leaders allow bullying to breed. Many leaders simply don’t appreciate the extent to which some people adversely impact their colleagues. Listen when members of your team complain about being mistreated. While at first you may perceive concerns to be unjustified, remain objective and bring empathy to your assessment.
Observe how people behave and consider carefully the consequences of their actions. Understand that while you may find some behaviour easy to ignore others may not. Avoid the common mistake of expecting more reasonable members of your team to tolerate poor attitudes and conduct from their manager or colleagues.
Remember the words of Edmund Burke who famously said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
3. Tackle unconscious bullying
Never accept ignorance or an absence of ill will as an excuse for bullying. Irrespective of their intentions no one should be allowed to bully other people. Take disciplined and consistent steps to applying a zero tolerance policy to bullying. Expect every member of your team to step up to the standards of behaviour required.
Understand that while some people are aware of how their behaviour impacts on others, many aren’t. Identify and take steps to educate the unconscious bullies among your team. Look for those who are oblivious to the consequences of their actions and build their awareness. Provide honest insight and set clear expectations of how you need people to improve their approach.
4. Select and develop leaders
Consider carefully whether someone has the character required to become a strong leader of people, before appointing them to the role. Some people simply don’t have the empathy, patience, respect or trust in other people required to lead well. These leaders are those most likely to be guilty of or encourage bullying.
Reflect on the leaders you most often observe accepting poor behaviour from members of their team. Do they have the awareness, empathy, courage or capability needed to effectively address behavioural issues? Invest in every leader’s ability to set clear expectations, engage in honest conversations and act decisively to address issues of bullying that arise.
5. Give staff a voice
Ensure you have a well-defined and understood policy addressing bullying and harassment. Undertake regular engagement surveys to ensure you fully understand your workplace environment. Monitor employee data such as frequency and patterns of absenteeism. Encourage every leader to be alert to potential issues and observant of changes in behaviour. Important questions to ask your team include “how are you?” and “how can things improve to make this a better place to work.”
The first and most important step you can take towards creating a workplace environment free of bullying is to make it matter. Understand that battling bullying matters to not only the health and wellbeing of the people on your team but also to the performance of your business. Begin by truly understanding the current reality of your organisations culture and the depth of trust and respect people typically feel. Commit to taking necessary action and expect the same from every leader in your business.