#bullyfree: Why being uncivil is wrong

There is a big difference between working in a robust workplace where people can be upfront with each other, comfortably engaging in constructive conflict and a workplace with a pattern of incivility. Jane McCarroll explains.

Bullying used to be passed off as old-fashioned authority. We did what we were told, kept our mouths shut and our heads below the parapet in case they got bitten off.

How many of us can remember ourselves in situations at work where
we were seething with frustration on the inside but compliant on the outside?
We kept our mouths shut because we knew that if we spoke out we would probably be labelled as troublemakers.

I would like to say things have improved nowadays, but have they?

In 2016 New Zealand ranked second highest in a global workplace bullying report. When I googled bullying stats 2018 I saw website after website about kids and bullying and I thought what about adults dealing with abrasive behaviour?

Incivility can include a very wide range of behaviours:

• Dismissive body language.
• Passive-aggressive comments.
• Routinely turning up late for meetings.
• Talking over others.
• Making jokes at someone’s expense.
• Gossiping or carrying on a private conversation.
• Disrespectful behaviours.
• Texting during a meeting.
• Withholding information.
• Excluding people.
• Inappropriate teasing.
• Being rude to customers or suppliers.
• A daily pattern of rough language, criticism and personal attacks.
• Insubordination in its many forms – talking people down and browbeating.

All this makes good material for any soap opera and is a gold standard for a gripping reality TV show but is highly corrosive in the workplace.

Identifying and intervening with workplace incivility, abrasive and bullying behaviour can be challenging. Workplace policies and reporting processes are only part of the answer. Leaders may feel unable to act until a formal complaint is made but at that point significant workplace disruption has already occurred. Not to mention the hidden cost of impacting productivity, morale and motivation.

I knew someone in recent years who applied for a programme management role – the role was to be the liaison between general managers and IT.

As part of the recruitment process he was required to undertake psychometric testing – and while this is considered pretty standard as part of an application process, what was not standard was what he was being tested for – his ability to work with people who were abrasive.

Rather than stamp out the bad behaviour, this organisation not only knew about it, they were recruiting to condone it. He got the job and surprise, surprise, the culture was toxic. How in any measure could this be good for business?

There is a big difference between working in a robust workplace where people can be upfront with each other, comfortably engaging in constructive conflict and a workplace with a pattern of incivility. Managers who turn a blind eye and hope that employees will sort it out for themselves are missing the point.

As the saying goes – what you accept, you approve of.

Organisations which permit workplace incivility to go unchecked are often unaware of the true costs of doing so. Workplace incivility has been shown to lower job satisfaction, increase psychological stress and result in lower discretionary effort.

Worse still, a pattern of incivility can lead to ongoing workplace dysfunction where people continue to feel unable or unwilling to perform at their best. The cumulative effect can result in an area being labelled a toxic workplace, making it more difficult to recruit and retain high performers.

Unconscious bullying – when employees don’t intentionally target anyone but make co-workers feel victimised anyway – is one of the most common causes of workplace angst. 

This behaviour is generally underpinned by a fundamental lack of self-awareness and our role as leaders is to help raise awareness as to why it matters to have empathy and to build healthy relationships based on trust and respect.

What are we, as leaders, doing when we see unacceptable behaviour and what are we doing to stamp it out of our organisations?

We need unwavering commitment to equality and inclusion in our workplaces, our markets and in the communities where we work and live.

We need to speak up: Companies should openly encourage people to speak up when they notice a problem. Make it everyone’s responsibility in the organisation.

It is up to all of us to nip aggressive behaviour in the bud and speak up when we see it happening to others in the workplace. We need to build awareness of what constitutes and causes abrasive behaviour, and provide best management practice in early intervention.

We need to educate: Develop good managers. Give managers leadership training to help them effectively manage and supervise workers and build a ‘no-bullying tolerated’ work culture.Provide employees with information about what constitutes bullying behaviour. The Government’s WorkSafe New Zealand website has a comprehensive section on developing workplace bullying and harassment policies and reporting protocols which are worthwhile reading. However, policies only work when enacted so it is important that this is lived and breathed across the organisation (as well as it being policy).

Early Intervention: Making sure your people know how to report unreasonable behaviour, and to have the confidence to call out and deal with any unreasonable behaviour before it escalates. This is so important. When bullying behaviour is coming from the top it can be really difficult to do this without feeling like your head is on the block – but if we work on accentuating the positive – we can hopefully begin to eliminate the negative.

Everyone has the right to be embraced as his or her true, authentic self. We want that for our kids, and we should want it for our adults too.

At IMNZ we help organisations address workplace incivility to build more productive workforces. Check out our website for more information.  

What can we all do to support our workplaces to be bully free? Work shouldn’t hurt. And that’s no bull.   M


Jane McCarroll is the head of marketing and membership at IMNZ. The Institute of Management New Zealand, helping leaders step up and lead since 1946.

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