Three Steps to a Bully-Free Workplace

Courtesy of photos-public-domain.comI’ve been reading Steve Jobs biography and have compared what I’ve learned so far in the book to what I know about his career. I’ve been pondering two powerful insights:

  • Jobs was a passionate genius for well-designed tools and for making those tools available to everyone
  • Periodically, Jobs was a complete bully, prone to yelling, name-calling, and put-downs

Jobs’ successes (and misses) are well documented. I wonder just how much more productive and creative Jobs’ staff would have been had Steve created a positive, healthy workplace that did not tolerate bullying of any kind, from anyone, at any level in the organization.

I am a huge proponent of creating high performance AND values-aligned workplaces. Where there is a safe workplace, activity may be frantic, but people treat each other with respect.

I admire the work of the Workplace Bullying Institute; they conduct research on the impact of workplace bullying and educate others about those issues. In a recent article for the International Journal of Communication, WBI founder Dr. Gary Namie and colleague Dr. Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik describe the “communal character” of workplace bullying. Their research found that witnesses to workplace bullying have a choice: they can 1) do nothing, which inspires more bullying in the workplace, or 2) raise the issue with key players to ensure the bullying stops quickly.

“Low”-lights From The Findings

  • Nearly 25% of respondents report being bullied at some time in their careers. In the US, the number is 36%.
  • In the US, over 49% were either targets of bullying or witnessed it.
  • In 72% of the cases, bullying was done by someone who ranked higher in the organization than the targets.
  • Solo harassers are the source of bullying 1/3 of the time. 2/3 of the time, there are multiple harassers.
  • In the case of solo harassers, 60% of the time there is organizational tolerance of the bullying (lack of response from senior leaders, the harasser’s peers, HR, and even the target’s peers).
  • When bullying was reported, the situation was resolved only 31% of the time.
  • When bullying was reported, NOTHING HAPPENED 45% of the time.

Three Steps to a Bully-Free Workplace

You will never create an inspiring, safe work environment if you tolerate bullying. If you are serious about eliminating bullying, follow these steps:

  • Make the choice to create a high performing, values-aligned workplace. Leaders must decide together to no longer tolerate bad behavior from anyone (including themselves). Once leaders decide that their company culture needs to be a safe, inspiring place of contribution and creativity, the next steps are easier to put into place.
    NOTE: NOT deciding to create a safe workplace IS A DECISION to enable and tolerate a less-than-safe workplace.
  • Create clear standards and expectations for both performance and values. Most organizations have performance standards reasonably well-defined and valued behaviors not defined at all. You need to describe tangible, observable, and measurable expectations for performance AND values, for all players, top to bottom.
  • Hold all staff accountable for both performance and values. You have systems in place to measure performance, progress towards key metrics, etc. You need to create systems to equally measure the demonstration of desired valued behaviors. Gather that data and 1) praise those that exceed standards for BOTH performance and values and 2) coach and redirect those that miss standards in EITHER performance and values. If, after coaching, folks miss the mark in either, lovingly SET THEM FREE.

Put these three steps into place and enjoy the significant shift to the high performance, values-aligned culture you desire.

What is your experience with workplace bullying? Share your insights in the comments section below.

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  • Chris, how would you define workplace bullying?

    I completely agree that it is unacceptable. However, I have seen instances that might be construed as bullying whereas in my opinion, it is often more a case of poor communication on behalf of the manager. Is it enough to accept that it is the perception of the person on the receiving end of the ‘bullying’ that counts?

    This is a complex area and often brought about by poor people skills. It is also brought about by people using position power rather than influence.

    • Thanks for your question, Simon. I love the definition proposed by the Workplace Bullying Institute (can be found here:
      “Workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:
      * Verbal abuse
      * Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
      * Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

      As defined, this pattern of behaviors is intentional, not casual. It’s a targeted series of activities, not simply poor communication by a manager.

      I think ideas can be examined harshly, but people must always be treated with respect.



  • Chris — These are three excellent steps, and I agree that that first one can be quite a hurdle. I have often noticed in such defining conversations, a not so subtle fear of your point about “including themselves.” A group of physicians, for example, resisted on two counts: 1) the stated one — to put into place such a code of conduct was feared to open the organization to legal liability and would be perceived by staff as an acknowledgement that such bad behavior was actually going on; and 2) the unstated one — it would also mean confronting and managing the actual bad behavior by high-powered members within the physician group itself. These objections persist despite lots of evidence about the negative effects on health care from bad behavior and industry rules. In order to overcome these objections, my sense is that top leaders would actually have had to be emotionally stronger than those exhibiting the offensive behavior, and be willing to “set free” some very accomplished and influential people. Before launching this conversation, I guess the lesson is the need to be absolutely clear as a leader where you stand, have political backing from higher authority (in this case, the Board) and then be willing to courageously confront both yourself and others in order to get that first agreement into place. While not every workplace would face such obstacles, many with entrenched cultures that have permitted such bad behavior for a long period certainly can. Dynamic leadership and persistence over time would seem to be key. Thanks for highlighting a very important issue!

    • Thanks for your insight, Dan – senior leaders are ted drivers of an organization’s culture. Not tolerating bad behavior is a crucial discipline!

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