Create authentic collaboration for dealing with bullying

Organisations which focus on embedding a culture of strong, authentic, collaboration from the top leadership down see reduced bullying accusations. Eileen Piggot-Irvine outlines two approaches to take.

I am going to be brutal… the fear linked to potential litigation around accusations of ‘bullying’ is blocking many organisations from thriving. In a vicious cycle (see Figure 1), such fear leads to high levels of problem avoidance behaviours in leaders and that avoidance, in turn, ultimately generates low trust around leader honesty. Such low trust leads to mediocre (or worse) commitment and performance from employees. It is in that low trust environment that accusations of bullying escalate. 

The good news is that there are two approaches I have found to be helpful in addressing this vicious cycle of bullying. The first, creating authentic collaboration which prevents bullying, and the second engaging in pre-litigation resolution of bullying accusations, are approaches aligned with thinking about a ‘learning organisation’ and ‘non-defensive strategies’.

I have been using these approaches to support organisations both in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere for nearly two decades and I offer them here with encouragement for you to try them out. Both approaches are developmental and supportive, and designed to create authentic collaboration in organisations. I will expand on each approach but guide you also to more detail in the paper noted at the end of this article. 

Approach 1: Creating authentic collaboration which prevents bullying 

There is no question in my mind that an organisation which focuses on embedding a 

culture of strong, authentic, collaboration from the top leadership down has reduced bullying accusations. I am not talking here about leaders simply creating more meetings, etc, so that people can collaborate. Rather, the term ‘authentic collaboration’ links to deeply adopted honest, respectful, non-defensive (non-controlling and non-avoiding), interactions. It is such interactions that lead to that hard-earned, fragile, outcome of trust. 

I have engaged with many leaders who think that a quick, one day course, type approach to creating authentic collaboration will do the trick… often sending middle tier managers or employees to the course rather than attending themselves. Big mistake. Not only is a one, two or three-day course just the beginning of learning but nothing consolidates distrust in a leader more than the leader acting as if others need development rather than themselves. What is needed is leaders actively sponsoring cultural change and the positive message that sends to all staff.  

Authentic collaboration breaks the vicious cycle. Learning to be authentically collaborative begins with the leader having the courage to look in the mirror to explore how they work with others.

The next step is for the leader to engage in deep development which focuses on intense identification and analysis of how they work with others in both inauthentic (defensive routines) and authentic ways. Such analysis then guides very focused, long-term, implementation goals linked to specific improvement areas which are regularly evaluated (see the summary in Figure 2).

Though I am steering away from including academic references in this article, there is research support reported in the paper I have noted at the end for the intensity and time required to overcome the defensive blocks that most of us as leaders carry with us.

It is possible to engage in authentic collaboration only when these obstacles are dealt with because they are strongly conditioned and well rehearsed by the time we become leaders in our adult lives.   

Approach 2: Engaging in pre-litigation resolution of bullying accusations

The ideal organisation to work in is one with leaders who have had the courage to continually engage in the deep development encouraged in Approach 1. 

Sadly, that is not always the norm and often advisors (an independent expert, etc) are called in at the stage of leaders being accused of bullying where litigation is a real possibility. In this latter situation, Approach 2 can then be instigated. 

Approach 2 has overlaps with the principles and steps in Approach 1, but it has enhanced intensity, guidance, and support from the advisor as a developer, as well as greater specificity about implementation actions and their evaluation. I have summarised the roles the advisor usually takes and the facets of the steps in the approach below. 

This initially provides an overview of an approach for creating authentic collaboration which fosters a culture which has open, trust-engendering, non-bullying (i.e. non-defensive), interactions. Its message is essentially that prevention is the best cure. If the prevention indicated in Approach 1, for whatever reason, has not eliminated accusations of bullying, I offer Approach 2 as a highly constructive resolution process. 



Professor Eileen Piggot-Irvine has recently returned to New Zealand from five years of leading one of the largest masterate leadership programmes in Canada. She has five books and more than 75 articles published on leadership. [email protected], For a recent article on bullying go to and search under Piggott-Irvine, Eileen.

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