Bullying is not just the stuff of childhood nightmares – it is increasingly seen as a menace to UK businesses too. It costs them an estimated 18.9 million days a year in lost working, according to anti-bullying charity Andrea Adams Trust.
“Over the past three years, the term bullying has entered the language of the workplace,” says Eric Parsloe, chief executive officer at the Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring.
“It is used to describe a certain type of behaviour – an abuse of power or inflicting emotional and psychological pain.”
To remedy the problem, some organisations are turning to coaching. Many see it as a suitable way to change either the bully’s or victim’s behaviour, or both.
Some organisations deploy internal coaches or mentors. One such is Manchester Metropolitan University, which launched a bullying and harassment policy for its 3,500 employees 18 months ago.
This is backed by the work of a team of 12 voluntary harassment advisers who take a mentoring and mediatory role. “They are independent and neutral,” says senior personnel policy adviser Derek Cowley.
Other organisations prefer to hire an external expert on a specific contract. This brings guaranteed distance from the issue and probably experience of tough situations in other organisations. “The target for the coach is to get the bully to accept there is a problem,” says Helen Pitcher, chief executive of training organisation Cedar International. “And that is usually the most difficult bit.”
The type of coaching required is defined as person-centred behavioural coaching, says Bob Garvey, leader of the mentoring and coaching research unit at Sheffield Hallam University .
“This is useful for tackling bullying and also as a behavioural modification for the bullies. In psychology terms, you are using transactional analysis – asking the bully to adopt a reasoned and logical approach. You are changing the bully’s controlling behaviour to one of rational adult behaviour, just as police negotiators do when dealing with terrorists,” Garvey says.
But before anyone points the finger of blame or singles out individuals for a series of one-to-one meetings, it pays to ask if the bullies realise what they are doing. Are they confusing robust management with strong-arm tactics and deluding themselves into thinking that they are following company policy?
One of the major challenges facing organisations in tackling bullying is to define the difference between bullying and robust management, according to the CIPD’s Managing Conflict at Work Survey 2004.
The survey’s author, chartered psychologist Noreen Tehrani, says: “Often those accused of bullying find it difficult to recognise themselves as behaving in a bullying or aggressive way.”
The opposite can also occur, which again can be damaging to the employer because key issues in the workplace remain unaddressed.
“Conversely, some managers are concerned about tackling poor performance and being accused of bullying,” Tehrani says.
She adds that the answers lie in giving employees the skills to treat each other with respect.
Changing management styles
Stirling Training Group managing director Rob Cram reports an increase in coaching assignments to change management styles. “In our experience, we find that the manager has a bullying style which goes unchecked because the company is getting results with them. Very few people are deliberate bullies who go home and say ‘I bullied so and so today’,” he says.
He says the employer has to back the change and make clear it doesn’t support strong-arm tactics. “That then leads to discussion with the alleged bully about what defines bullying.”
But because this is a coaching scenario not a disciplinary one – it is up to the HR department to handle that elsewhere by deploying clear anti-bullying policies – there has to be a discussion that allows the coach to set out objectives to the coachee in a non-recriminatory fashion.
Cram says: “We take the line that we want to talk about good leadership – of how to get better performance from your people. The main reason managers bully is because they don’t know about coaching, nurturing and working alongside people. We talk in the early stages about the bully’s performance targets in the business, training and balanced feedback.
“The coach has to point out to the bully that they don’t have the right to hurt someone emotionally and that bullying is not the opposite of letting people ‘get away with things’.”
Follow the principles
The approach has to follow other coaching principles. “It has to be objectives- and results-focused,” says Cram. “We give them a route map for good behaviours. We give them the skills and show them how to do it.”
Coaching to combat bullying or victim-like behaviours is similar to other coaching methods: it cannot work in isolation and has to be supported by other activities within the company.
Lyndsey Masson, director of coaching at Ashridge Management College, recommends measuring the results of the coaching efforts through ongoing staff surveys and 360-degree feedback.
And the responsibility cannot rest on the coach’s shoulders alone – to run an effective anti-bullying policy means the organisation has to check every aspect of its culture and communicate this to its people, including those at the top.
“Establishing an anti-bullying culture is connected to leadership development,” says Garvey. “The modern understanding of leadership development is ‘don’t assert yourself against your people’ which means employers have to settle on a management style and cascade this to their employees.”
How to coach a victim
Eric Parsloe sets out a three-stage process:
Ask the alleged victim what is upsetting them about the bully’s behaviour. The bully is exercising authority because they want control. Ask if the alleged victim is contributing to the situation. They too may desire to control and that is often challenging. They too can be frustrated because they are not getting their own way.
Confront the bully
Ask the victim if they are able to confront the bully. The confrontation will end the bullying. The question is, how to do that in context and the culture in which they are operating. I encourage them to think about it and to say to the bully things like ‘Can I give you some feedback. Are you really telling me that you don’t care?’ A more indirect way is to encourage the victim to ask the bully ‘Can we discuss this issue?’
Look for a joint approach
If the bully says ‘I don’t care’ then the victim should talk with colleagues about how to jointly approach the issue and try to get it aired.
Case study: how to coach a bully
A personality clash that turned into accusations of bullying at a major Wall Street bank led to Rob Cram, of the Stirling Training Group, being called in to coach both parties.
The problems involved two female executives: a senior and one of her direct reports.
One cause was the high pressure demands of business. Another was that bullying had become part of the culture for that sector.
What started as an inconsistent style of management, turned into a lack of respect for the junior employee.
“The senior executive would interrupt the junior during presentations. Then she started to imply that the junior was lying. She continually dismissed her ideas and suggestions.”
Cram’s approach was to take both individuals for one session each to get both points of view and understand the context.
“When approaching the alleged bully, I had to show credibility and that I understood her business,” he says.
This was followed by three more sessions with the bully. “At first it felt like hard work”, says Cram. “Until she suddenly had a eureka moment and got it in a flash. She understood that there are different ways of expressing the same thing and that there is a difference between progressive leadership and basic bullying tactics.”
Cram’s commitment to the project came to a close with “a follow-up with the no-longer bullied junior”, which focused on how the two colleagues could work together in the future.
by Stephanie Sparrow