Executives are afraid to confront bullies in the workplace

Bullying is not a style of leadership, it is a practice that is detrimental to a company's organisational culture and its bottom line and one that should be stamped out fast.

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Bullying can be as harmful in the workplace as it is in schools, causing well-understood effects on people, plus a long list of challenges for organisations. More sobering to business leaders are the irrefutable statistics – bullying is costing businesses billions annually. As explained by Lisa Castle, the vice president of human resources at the University of British Columbia in Canada: "Its impact is enormous: disengagement; loss of creativity and productivity; sick leave, benefit and turnover costs." For every short-term result that a bully achieves, there is a list of longer-term negative business impacts that far outweigh any temporary benefits.
The good news is that increased public awareness, research, and an expanded appreciation of the costs/effects of bullying have paved the way for efforts to address it. Further, there are many tools, experts and ideas for formulating an effective action plan. In the highly diverse Middle Eastern workplaces, to effectively address bullying, it is essential to have skills and a common language to talk about difficult things, across differences and in a consistent manner. While managing aggressive behaviour is difficult, it's worth speaking up and taking action – for you, your workplace culture and the bottom line.
Having a discussion about bullying is never enjoyable but that doesn't mean it should be avoided. Most organisations are generally unprepared and terrible at managing workplace bullying. There are many contributors:
Business leaders are afraid to confront bullies
While most leaders are aware that workplace harassment is a severe problem, they are often afraid to deal with it. Bullying is a sensitive topic because it requires a difficult discussion – confrontation, conflict and courage as much as it requires tools. Fear often feeds the problem: fear of the actual confrontation, of what else might be uncovered.
Having talked with plenty of executives, it is fair to state that fear of having that discussion is a serious impediment to eliminating the issue. The result is paralysis, and so the bullying continues.
A focus on results
In our hyper-competitive world, there are intense demands for results. Organisations become so focused on short-term results that they ignore how they are achieved. If there is one commonality among bullies, it's a gift for whipping up results.
Misinterpretation of a ­"competitive workplace"
Organisations confuse healthy competition with a "survival of the fittest" model for workplace behaviour. There have been stories about Amazon, Apple and other global companies where staff members are regularly challenged to outperform their colleagues using over-the -top rewards for the winner.
It is possible to have both workplace respect and healthy competition. Staff members do not need to be abused to perform to their fullest. The truth is that by addressing bullying and empowering staff, leaders improve workplace culture, increase employee engagement and motivate innovation.
A belief that bullying is a ­leadership style
Bullying is the opposite of leadership. In my opinion, executives who use this excuse to support a tormentor are probably afraid to confront the problem. They discount the level of the bullying, rationalise it as a leadership issue or find another excuse to avoid actively engaging. They leave the mess alone, hoping it will sort itself out. That never happens if leaders don't speak up.
Lack of effective policies
Most organisations have a harassment policy that outlines what is unacceptable workplace behaviour. How­ever, many organisations don't have an effective complaints process. Without a fair, impartial, confidential and effective complaints and conflict resolution processes, the policy is meaningless.
The above reasons are why organisations fail to respond effectively to cases of bullying. There are undoubtedly others, too. What is important is that even though the vast majority of leaders acknowledge the problem should be eradicated, very few actually do. The effect on organisational success is significant and totally preventable. With the help of others and a willingness to confront the problem head-on, long-term improvements to the workplace culture and bottom line await.
Paul Pelletier a consultant with PDSi, a coaching and leadership development company that has created its own certified programme, HardTalk, to help individuals and teams have the difficult conversations necessary for success
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