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Beating the bullies

Wellbeing 12 Dec . min read

Ask any foreign visitor about the areas in which New Zealand leads the world, and you’re unlikely to hear “bullying” in the top ten. But that might be luck rather than a reflection of reality. In recent international studies, New Zealand has shown up near the top of bullying league tables in our workplaces and schools.

A 1,700-person academic study published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources in 2014 reported that one in five workers were affected by workplace bullying, placing us second in the developed world. With intimidating behaviour so apparently normalised in workplaces, perhaps it’s not surprising that it is also imbedded in our schools. In April 2017 the OECD’s global PISA survey of fifteen-year olds also placed New Zealand second in the world for bullying, with just over one quarter of students reporting regular exposure to some form of bullying.

The consequences of allowing bullying to survive in a workplace culture can be profound. From mental health issues to lost productivity and talent retention problems, bullying has the potential to undermine an organisation and cause serious harm to its members.

For the past 18 months, allowing bullying to thrive has also been a criminal act. Under New Zealand’s revamped Health and Safety laws, doing nothing to remedy a situation that’s causing mental health issues can make senior managers personally liable for prosecution, and fines or even imprisonment in extreme cases.

It’s clearly time for national action to rebalance our workplaces and schools. In our schools there are a range of initiatives underway via schools and the Ministry of Education. But it’s harder to coordinate national action in workplaces. Creating safer environments that actively discourage intimidation and bullying comes down to what each HR professional does in each workplace.

Recently we asked on online panel of senior HRINZ fellows to share their insights on how to heal our workplaces.

The first point the experts made was that workplace bullying can be difficult to detect.

Leeanne Carson-Hughes, Executive General Manager of People and Culture at City Care in Christchurch says it’s rare to see bullying get physical.

“Most often it’s exclusion from workplace activities, yelling and belittling people and constant nit-picking,” she says.

Peter Bell, Deputy CEO at mental health services provider MASH Trust says some of the most damaging bullying are sometimes subtle mind games that can have a profound impact over time.

“You see it in attitudes of exclusion, such as simply not talking to someone. Then there’s implicating people in gossip and innuendo to manipulate someone’s emotions,” he says.

Consultant Rachel Walker says bullying can affect women more than men.

“Some of the most prevalent workplace bullying women face is around sexism – female traits not being valued or the same behaviour having a different label depending on if a man or woman exhibits the behaviour. What in a man is considered assertiveness, in a woman is labelled negatively. At senior levels also, women are often the exception and therefore have a smaller support network” she says.

Results I’ve seen from the AskYourTeam, the organisational and leadership performance system where I’m CEO, provide a damning indictment on the level to which Kiwi workplaces allow bullying to thrive and support the view that women are more bullied than men.

AskYourTeam is now in its sixth year of operation and we have recorded survey responses from nearly 80,000 Kiwi workers in a range of industries. Our system asks questions on a range of areas ranging from workplace culture to staff engagement, leadership and business performance.

The survey confronts bullying head on by asking respondents to react to the assertion: “We have clear and effective systems for dealing with intimidating behaviour and workplace bullying, which are applied equally to everyone.”

On average, around one third of all AskYourTeam respondents have disagreed with this statement, with females consistently disagreeing at higher rates than men. The further away from the C-Suite the more vulnerable women feel they are. One third of women in non-management positions said they don’t think their organisation has systems to deal with bullying.

Frances Tweedy, who co-founded of the Capability Group in 1984, isn’t surprised.

“Suffice to say that in my experience women have always found it difficult to be able to alert appropriate people about bullying and intimidating behaviour,” she says

Frances Tweedy says things are changing but not in a positive way.

“Now I think men are also finding it difficult because of a general view that males are usually the ones that are using inappropriate behaviour when that is not always the case,” she says.

Experts agree that establishing a simple and anonymous system for reporting bullying is critical to stamping it out, as is acting promptly when an incident is identified. Carson-Hughes says that it’s important to send a strong message that certain behaviours are not tolerated inside an organisation. And nothing does that better than speed.

“Acting fast is vital. If we uncover a really bad situation, we dismiss quickly.”

There’s general agreement that disciplinary action is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, and the challenge for New Zealand HR professionals is to build workplace cultures where unsafe behaviour is not tolerated.

Peter Bell says the hallmarks of a positive working culture is when employees feel safe to raise issues in an environment of open honesty.

“It’s important to provide safe opportunity for people to raise issues, to encourage bringing things forward early rather than waiting until they blow up. Perpetrators often do things behind your back or in secret and exposing them as unacceptable is a powerful step toward eliminating them,” he says.

AskYourTeam’s respondents report that many New Zealand workplaces have a long way to go in this respect as well.

AskYourTeam asks respondents to react to the assertion: “I feel safe to tell the truth even when it is unpopular”. The results paint a telling portrait of New Zealand workplace cultures.

Over one quarter of all women in non-management positions in New Zealand organisations do not feel safe to tell the truth - a clear blockage to reporting undesirable behaviour from their workmates. Contrast to this, male managers are more positive about their organisation’s culture, with only 8% feeling that they’re not safe to tell the unpopular truth.

These results would suggest that Kiwi males managing women have a blind spot when it comes to understanding how safe the women in teams feel.

At AskYourTeam we’ve encountered many male managers who feel they have a “demanding” style, but “demanding” is OK at their workplace because it’s part of the culture. In almost every instance, we’ve found these “command and control” leaders are operating with a huge blind spot. They don't realise that the people who work for them - particularly women - regard their “demanding” style as intimidating, and, when viewed through their colleagues’ eyes, their everyday behaviour is actually built around bullying.

Leeanne Carson-Hughes is unsurprised by the lack of empathy among leaders apparent from the AskYourTeam findings. She says encouraging mutual understanding of difference is the most critical activity in building inclusive cultures where bullying cannot survive. She says it won’t happen overnight, but through a long-term programme of activity tailored to the needs of an organisation and the mix of people within it where variety is key.

“We work with leaders on a host versus hero leadership style. We also work with our management teams to understand different personal styles using Myers Briggs. One of our values is ‘WE Care’ and we take a lot of pride in showing pictures of what this looks like. We run mentoring programmes for team leaders and we recently ran a workshop for women on effective communication in a male dominated environment which was well received,” she says.

None of the experts we spoke to about beating the bullies prescribes a single silver bullet solution to solve New Zealand’s most insidious workplace hazard, but they do share a consistent view that there are three things every New Zealand organisation needs to do.

First, implement a safe and anonymous reporting system. Next, take rapid action when incidents are identified. And lastly, start a programme of long-term culture building to foster a working environment of mutual understanding.

If every Kiwi organisation can get to work on those three things, then we’ll beat the bullies.

*Article was originally published in the HRINZ magazine, Summer issue 2018.

Chris O’Reilly

Chris co-founded AskYourTeam as a way to make it easier for leaders to ask their teams the most important (and the least-asked) question in business: “How can I help you do your job better?”