Hanging out with my grandson the other day he told me about a neighbourhood bully who makes ‘bad choices’. We had a great conversation about people who make bad choices, particularly bullies. In his vast wisdom of nearly 5 years, my grandson told me ‘Bullies are people too but its not OK when they hurt other people and if they do, then a grown up has to give them a time-out.’
What a thoughtful leadership lesson in this little statement. After all, we use time-outs with children to make them think about their actions, they must apologize and we expect them to do differently so they learn from their experience. So why don’t we tackle bullies in the workplace with the same energy - especially people in a power position over others?
What Would You Do?
You know the headlines these days are dominated by allegations of sexual harassment; victims are speaking out about their nasty experiences, almost daily - a topic seldom talked about before. Women everywhere have been emboldened to speak up and share their personal stories of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in work situations. With every news story, it triggers another woman's courage to speak out. Rest assured, there will be more to come.
Will you know how to manage an allegation at work if someone in your company or organization turns to you for help?
Policy and Practices Start with YOU, not HR!
Lets face it; dialogue about sexual harassment makes most of us uncomfortable. Anything ugly is difficult to speak about, but open discussion is vital to bring about improvement. It really concerned me when I read the Globe & Mail article that '94 percent of Canadian's leaders believe sexual harassment isn't an issue.'
Given harassment has become such a hot topic, every company should recognize that sexual harassment IS a real problem. It is time for leaders, or anyone in a position to help, to stand up, call out and follow through with discipline for inappropriate behaviour. No one should ever feel harassed at work, particularly if it is unwanted and sexualized in nature. It’s just not ok, regardless of how you qualify or explain it away as ‘that is how it is here’.
Turning a blind eye to anyone’s harassment claim can make worldwide headlines within a few hours through social media when they don’t get the help they need. So #Time's Up on covering up transgressions of anyone, especially senior level leaders or officials.
This is tough stuff to handle but there are steps you can take, immediately, to prevent all forms of harassment from happening at your work. Lets look at how you can create work environments where both men and women feel safe to bring forward concerns and get support rather than feeling they have to go public or leave the company.
Think ‘METALS’ - Leadership Steps to Say #Times Up
1. Model. Everyone is watching you whether you know it or not. Don’t speak inappropriately about women (or men); leave any form of sexual innuendo out of the workplace – sexual dialogue does not belong in a work environment. Help your team remain respectful in every interaction, show them how you manage with respect. You are the one your team will imitate, so show people the right way to treat others.
2. Enforce. The basis for change at work begins with having policy as a guidepost. No matter the size of your business, you need policies in place to fall back on to enforce. Ensure your workplace has a clear harassment policy in place with specific actions to take should any disrespectful behaviour occur – regardless of level or position in the company. Check to see that your company has a policy, become familiar and communicate it. If they don’t have a policy, suggest it be implemented ASAP. You can be the catalyst for ensuring a harassment policy is in place, communicated and enforced.
3. Talk. Talk about harassment with your team, long before an issue occurs. When opportunities arise to reinforce, discuss behaviour openly, highlighting what is acceptable and what is not at work. Openly share stories about past personal experiences and state how you would handle it now. Immediately discuss any sign of disrespect you observe or hear about so your team know you will not tolerate it. Make your team aware that they each have a role to play in keeping the workplace safe, people who stay silent are complicit; give them the courage to speak up. You create the environment of open dialogue.
4. Act. In the best work environments ‘respect in the workplace’ is a foundational training piece for all employees so they understand what behaviour is expected of them and what to expect in return. Many people go through training but notice when management doesn’t consistently follow through when something occurs, so they clam up. Be the one who acts swiftly. People want to work for leaders who readily step up and take responsibility for the wellbeing of their people. They will know you care enough about both the ‘bully’ and the bullied to deal with bad behaviour head on. Any form of bullying or inappropriate behaviour should be investigated and acted upon with appropriate discipline, without delay. Action begins with you, not HR.
5. Listen. Treat any form of harassment claim with urgency, seriousness and respect by hearing out those who have the courage to speak up, suspending your own judgement. Ensure a proper investigation is done while taking steps to protect the complainant from any form of retribution. Active listening shows them you care, understand and can be trusted to help. Listening with empathy is a key leadership trait.
6. Speak Up. By respectfully speaking out for those who feel harassed at work, you quickly become a powerhouse leader of tomorrow. Inappropriate behaviour at work is not OK; it is never to be tolerated. By speaking up and supporting others who speak out you will be the leader everyone wants to work for.
Take a Stand
You make choices everyday for how you treat others, we all do. If someone chooses to be a jerk or worse, an aggressor, then they should face appropriate consequences for their actions, regardless of their position in a company or organization. But it takes strong leadership to follow through with these people and take deliberate action. Take a stand!
As a leader you have the ability to choose what your team’s workplace should be like, irrespective of the culture or industry you’re in, or whether you have an HR team. YOU can be the shining example to others in management. YOU count to the people who report to you and how you act during the toughest times will be a key differentiator to their lives.
I’m here if you need guidance to manage tough leadership situations. Send me an email if you want support to develop policy or practices to enforce a respectful workplace or you’re struggling with a difficult issue and want a coach to talk it through.
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You’ve been there–it could be a pain-in-the-butt colleague, a troublemaking employee, or worse, a devil-boss who makes your workday torture! Regardless of who they are, they all have one thing in common…nasty bullying behaviour.
Sadly, if you don’t find ways to manage it, the stress may cause your health to decline, you disengage from work resulting in your performance taking a hit or you have the sudden urge to quit because you simply have no other way out.
Dealing with a workplace bully wears us all down. Repeated over time, you may actually believe what they say, sparking self-doubt and eroding your self-esteem. They yearn for this power and as such, once they’ve set their sights on you, they do what they can to take you down.
I’ve helped several clients rise above these difficult people. It takes a little bit of work but in the end, they feel a sense of accomplishment once they triumph!
It’s important to note that if what you are dealing with is an extreme case of bullying or a possible harassment case, there are Human Rights laws to protect you. Handling those situations requires a formal process. The Ministry of Labour (Ontario) provides guidance to both employers and employees regarding these laws in my province.
What I’m talking about today are the scenarios where someone is staying within the bounds of the law, but making it unpleasant for you to work with them. These people know how to get at you but management may not see it, may choose to ignore it, or it just may not be bad enough for you to want to raise a big fuss.
The ‘Bully’ Profile
These nasty people often share similar characteristics, they:
So what CAN you do to battle this kind of unpleasantness? Lets look at some simple tactics to disarm these bullies and take back your own power:
1. Let them shine
It may seem counterintuitive but people who are problematic are typically seeking some kind of attention.
Take time to assess this person’s underlying insecurity; ask yourself the following questions to become aware of what is really going on:
With this information in mind, look for a moment to praise them when they do something you can comfortably acknowledge: “Jane had a good point”, “Jane was absolutely right, ‘Thank you Jane for xxx” “Jane I quite liked xxx”.
These comments begin to neutralize their need to be nasty because their own esteem rises.
However, it’s important that you approach this genuinely. Don’t do it if you don’t really feel it or it will come off as disingenuous and inflame them further.
Giving them the limelight is a powerful tool and it works in most situations.
2. Use the power of Aikido
If you haven’t heard of it before, Aikido is actually a form of martial arts. Yet, it is non-threatening and doesn’t use force.
In fact, what makes Aikido so effective is that it removes aggression from an adversary by yielding to his/her force in a way that they end up only hurting themselves. For instance, imagine stepping out of the way as someone tries to strike you–the attacker would likely fall down, hurting only themselves.
Mean people are easily unsettled when you DON'T react the way they are expecting. Because most of these people have very low self-esteem, their actions come from a place of insecurity; they lash out or belittle to make themselves feel better.
To use an ‘Aikido-like’ reaction:
3. Find your inner comic
Instead of letting these people get under your skin, find a way to make light of their behaviour. I have seen really great leaders deal with some very annoying people simply by making a quick thinking remark. For instance, in the case of an employee continuously interrupting a meeting, the leader might say, “Slow down there speedy, I’m driving this meeting”.
If it’s your boss who’s pushing your buttons, this can be a bit trickier but you can still make light of their nasty comments. Laugh out loud and say something like, “Oh, for a moment I thought you were calling me an idiot–that’s a good one”.
It may not immediately come to you in the moment, so after an interaction has happened, consider things you could say next time. The AMA has a great article on how to have the last laugh, worth a read! Try to avoid insults as you don’t want to stoop to their level–I’m talking about making light of their comment so you take back control.
4. Call them on the behaviour
We naturally try to defend ourselves or strike back when mean people put us down or make a condescending comment. These people have become experts at making others look second-rate so that they can feel superior. That is where they draw strength.
If you can’t ignore their comments, respond firmly with a response that exposes the behaviour, “That sounded like a put-down”. It usually holds a mirror up to the individual and catches them off guard.
Most of these people won’t want to ‘look bad’ in front of others and a public call-out will make them uncomfortable enough to switch gears.
Over time, this tactic can actually help them with their own self-awareness.
5. Nip it in the bud: stage an intervention
This approach takes a great deal of courage and I recommend doing this with support. Book a face-to-face meeting with the difficult person and address their behaviour head-on when you are cool-headed.
Be sure to have several specific examples at the ready. Make sure your discussion is done in a way to help them understand the affect they have on others. Conduct this meeting in private; clarify what the issue is as factually as possible and set out a plan to fix the problem offering support and guidance.
Let them know how these behaviours are making you or your team feel. Use ‘I’ or ‘I feel’ messages. For instance, “I feel embarrassed when I’m called out in a meeting in front of others”, or, “I feel disrespected when I am constantly interrupted in meetings”.
‘I feel’ messages usually resonate better because the other person is not put on the defensive–no one can deny your own feelings. If you have internal HR support, they can assist you in this discussion. If not, then consider bringing in external support to help you plan this discussion and to be present during the meeting.
Don’t let nasty people ruin your work experience. Approach them as though they have a problem and don’t let it be your problem anymore.
Typically they have developed this behaviour over many years but no one has called them on it. It is possible for them to change, but it takes work on their behalf as well as yours.
Most great companies have formal policies to reinforce values for treating people with respect. This is great for employees, but what about you as a leader?
Check out our additional posts that deal with bad behaviour like bullying at work:
- 6 Strategies for dealing with difficult people
- The Constant Critic
If you’re dealing with colleagues or team members who are disrespectful to you, I’m here to help. I can arm you with proven practices to help you manage through the tough stuff. Send me an email or give me a call today!
Elaine Adamson is a leadership consultant with Dots Leadership Solutions Inc. A natural dot connector. Passionate about coaching team effectiveness and leadership development she shares over 25+ years of real-life tips and tricks that really work!
Elaine believes you can discover and leverage strengths to forge a strong team dynamic despite business challenges or organizational change.