In this Case Study on Bullying we Answer the question – Is it possible to handle bullying in a human way?

As people start to love working in a mwah. way, there are so many cases coming back to us, and we want to keep sharing them. We see them as an antidote for cynicism.

There a few topics we get asked about all the time. We shared a case study on dismissal a few weeks ago, and the other hot topic is bullying. “Is it possible to make handle bullying in a human way?”.

The Answer

The short answer is ‘Bullying is always ugly’.
At it’s worse, it’s a person behaving seriously badly and in doing so, ruining the working life (and often home life too) of someone else, or a whole team, or even a whole organisation.

At its best, it’s a person who feels like they’re being bullied, and not valued, and has got themselves so convinced that things aren’t right, that they’re risking their employment and security to raise the issue with someone more senior.

Can it be handled ‘well’? Well, it is a tough topic and it’s not easy to deal with.
Can it be handled better than we usually do? Yes! Definitely.

Because bullying is so serious a topic, if you don’t already have expertise in this area, we strongly recommend you read the Bullying section within the mwah. knowledge-base, especially if you’re dealing with a bullying claim or case, before you read this particular case study. The content will give you definitions of bullying, some ideas of how to handle it, and help you appreciate how serious it can be.

Case Study

Some context

Our client is a well-run mid-size business. Team of more than 450 people working across the country. Quite good culture across the organisation. It’s grown solidly and well over the last five years and people feel confident and secure.

What happened? 

Four months ago, one member of the team starts acting up. He’s been with the company for eleven years. Never had an issue. Gets on well with people. Works hard. Unblemished record since the day he started. In the last six months, his work standard is dropping, and he’s started taking a lot of sick leave. There’s rumours that his marriage is in trouble. His boss is trying to find out exactly what’s wrong. The conversations aren’t going well.

And then

The eleven year man, asks to speak to the CEO. He makes a time and meets him offsite at a café. Opening conversation is chatty and positive, but the eleven year man is nervous. He finally breaks out with “Geoff*, I’m being bullied”. It hangs in the air. “I’m embarrassed, because I sound like such a baby, but it’s killing me, and it’s got to stop”.

The CEO is quite stunned, but asks some simple questions. “Can I ask some more details?”. He asks who, when and some details about the bullying.

And the answers are: His immediate boss, over the last twelve months, and it ranges from nasty emails, excessive texts over weekends, disagreeing with everything he says in any meeting, gossiping to others, and constant criticism of his work.

At that point

The organisation has a bullying ‘case’.

Bullying and harassment are defined as any repeated, unwanted and unreasonable behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended. It can be, and often is, very serious.

First Reaction

One of the most important moments in a bullying situation is that moment the person raises it with a senior leader. The leader can choose a whole range of responses, from openness and listening, to disbelief and defensiveness, and everything in between.

The only good response is openness and listening, and that’s what happened in this case.

To be honest, I did feel really outraged and quite defensive, but I’ve also been in business long enough to know that these things happen. I knew to keep a cap on my initial emotional response and be open to what we being told to me”, said the CEO at the time, and that’s exactly what he did.

He listened. He asked how the person was feeling, and whether they had good support and someone they could talk to. They did. The eleven year man was talking to his wife, and his daughter was also studying HR, so he’d had some advice from her as well.

Listen

Given his experience, the CEO knew that listening was critical. He also knew that ‘listening’ to a bullying story, that has been going on twelve months, was a slow process. If a person feels bullied, often over a long period of time, they will tell the story with all sorts of sidebars, and sometimes unrelated facts and examples.

The time you take to listen, to every part of the story, will be the foundation of trust on which you will be able to deal with the situation. In this particular case study, they sat in that little café for two and half hours. Every minute mattered, and lifted the weight off the person. During the whole conversation, the CEO took a few notes on the big topics and examples, but explained that there may well be a need to revisit the conversation in more detail.

Don’t Judge

All the way through that two and half hour conversation, the CEO knew not to judge – either the eleven year man as he told his meandering story, or the manager on whom so much of the story was centred. The best coaching is that there are three sides to every story – your version of the truth, my version of the truth, and the actual truth.

Building Trust

From the long conversation, and a number of coffees, and even some cake, the CEO and the eleven year man, built trust and respect. Sure they had known each other for some years, but there’s a different level of work discussion when someone is in pain or has bad news.

All the way through, the CEO remembered what we’d spoken about – that when a long term employee feels things are so bad, that they need to raise an issue formally, there is clearly something very wrong. It may be bullying. It may be simply a broken relationship. But, it needs to be addressed, and there has to be respect for the courage of raising the situation, and also for the potential impact it has on each person, on the team and on the whole workplace.

Next steps and the interim period

The CEO knew from the examples that had been given that this was either bullying, or it was a standard of leadership behaviour that wasn’t good. So, how to handle this tricky next step, while still keeping an open mind until you’ve heard and thought through both sides, and perhaps even other views. He decided to commit to the eleven year man that he needed to think this through carefully, and would come back to him within two weeks. He asked whether he needed any time off, or whether he would prefer to work, and was ok to work alongside his manager while they went through this process. The eleven year man wanted to work, and was comfortable to do so. He undertook to come back to the CEO if that changed.

Speed 

Two weeks is a very long time if you’re a position where you feel you’re being bullied, and especially when you know that the more senior manager is now investigating. Everyone has heard stories of retribution and if you’ve had the courage to speak up, you are feeling pretty nervous until things are resolved. Despite this, so many companies drag on investigations and reviews over MONTHS, not weeks, and the damage is extraordinary.

Who to speak to?

Given the examples explained to the CEO, this case did not involve other people, so he decided not to speak to anyone else on the team, at least until after he’d spoken to the manager. He set that meeting up the next day, and went for a walk with the manager so they weren’t sitting in the middle of the workplace. Interestingly, the manager’s reaction was embarrassment, not anger. Anger at being accused is the most common reaction when someone is accused of bullying, but it’s not the only one.

In this case, the manager was disappointed, and started telling his own story. He was a ‘firm but fair’ manager and was pushing performance improvement. He wasn’t a great communicator, and found the eleven year man quite difficult to connect to. He’d tried getting the team to socialise, but the eleven year man never came along and while he was friendly to everyone else, he wouldn’t give the manager an inch. They talked through the texts and emails, and the manager looked at his phone. He was shocked to see the huge volume of weekend texts and emails. He explained that he was working really hard and fast, and must have got carried away over a few weekends. They talked through meetings, and whether he was given everyone on the team the same generosity and fairness, and whether he was giving public feedback before he’d really had a chance to coach and support.

The CEO quickly saw an inexperienced leader in front of him – making lots of rookie errors with the best of intent. The CEO started thinking of the coaching he should have been doing, and how he could have better supported this new manager trying to do his work without the experience or expertise to do it well.

What you don’t know about other people 

The CEO also started filling in the back story for the manager. Eleven year man had applied for supervisory jobs a few times, but missed out. He also had a history of crazy socialising and partying that had cost him his first marriage. He was looking after the second one better. As the CEO and manager spoke, they both understood that there was a foundational lack of respect and regard for the eleven year man from the manager, because he simply didn’t know him.  

A potential solution 

The CEO decided on a potential solution. He decided to give the manager a chance to learn how to lead much more constructively and to coach him to do so. He decided to ask the eleven year man whether that was workable.

Next day, he set up a discussion with the eleven year man. He explained the inexperience, and the lack of support the manager had had. He explained the good intent. He explained the behaviours that weren’t right – the excessive texting, the public criticism instead of helpful coaching, the one way directive communication style – and he explained what he and the manager had agreed what ‘good looked like’. The CEO effectively asked the eleven year man to give his manager a chance to step up. He asked the eleven year man for feedback on how it was going, and set a review for six months time, assuming nothing deteriorated in that period. The eleven year was a little cynical but he agreed, somewhat reluctantly.

Then the CEO got the manager and the eleven year man together. The three of them met quietly offsite and talked through the arrangements. They all committed to getting the relationship a whole lot better. The manager agreed to change the behaviours that were making the eleven year man feel so unvalued and unappreciated. The eleven year man agreed to give the manger direct feedback, and also to give the trial a go.

Looking after the team 

When bullying happens, or when relationships break down, the whole team sees it, and that’s even when no one is gossiping about things, which in almost every case they are. The CEO talked about that to the two men. He explained that everyone on the team was watching them, and that their lack of relationship was bad for everyone. They needed to make sure the relationship was working better, and that the manager held the keys to getting that right by changing behaviour.

Meeting every commitment 

The CEO did coach the manager,  and the Manager did rethink and change his behaviour. He was also extra conscious of ensuring the eleven year man felt fairly treated and valued. They did feedback outside of meetings in one-on-ones. They worked hard at improving the relationship. It’s not quite six months, but things are better. They’re not perfect, but everyone is trying to make it work.

We’re staying optimistic for these guys.

There should be no place for bullying in the workplace. Ever.
There should also be no one that feels like they’re bullied. Ever.
We’ve seen the worst of bullying, and the bullies were rightly fired. The damage to the individuals who were bullied was often lifelong and incredibly sad.
We’ve also seen misunderstandings that got resolved, when people were able to talk.

But of all the cases we’ve seen, the vast majority are inexperienced leaders, getting a whole bunch of little things wrong and leaving everyone feeling undervalued and unappreciated. And above them, a whole bunch of leaders who weren’t close enough and weren’t coaching enough.

We hope this, combined with the detail in the mwah. knowledge-base, gives you a different perspective on bullying, and how to handle it as well as you possibly can.

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