Why People Bully (and what you need to do about it)

Last month we looked at the type of bullies that might exist in a CAD or BIM environment.  This month we look at why bullies do it. In the research effort by the Chartered Management Institute in the UK, first published November 2008, they found some common reasons in the workplace.

They found that incidents of bullying were not just ‘top down’, with 63 percent of respondents observing bullying between peers and 30 percent witnessing subordinates bullying their managers.

The root causes of bullying they identified were:

Lack of management skills    70%
Personality clashes    57%
Authoritarian management styles   48%
Failure to address previous bullying   38%
Personal prejudice/discrimination   30%
Unrealistic targets and deadlines   23%
Inappropriate performance management systems 19%
Organizational change    10%
Demanding customers/clients     9%

The number one reason that bullying happens in the workplace (based on the respondent’s perspective) is that management doesn’t do anything about it.  This may be because the immediate supervisor may not be around when it happens or maybe they just don’t seem to care.  Such incidents are often written off as “kidding around” or friendly banter.  They also may not be trained or experienced enough to recognize when it is happening.  Or they may not be sensitive enough to realize when someone is becoming frustrated or intimidated by others.

The researchers go on to further state that 35 percent of the respondents think that their firms are “ineffective” at deterring bullying and 28 percent feel that they are ineffective in addressing specific incidents.

Let’s tackle that one first… lack of management skills.

While an employee’s direct supervisor is responsible for addressing staff issues with individual employees and should be active in taking action in all cases, sometimes the supervisor is not around.   In the CAD environment, the CAD manager may be a first responder when bullying happens.  These managers will be called on to interact or buffer this kind of behavior at times.   What is a CAD manager to do when a bully is intimidating others or making a work environment intolerable?

There are three steps that I use when addressing these kinds of incidents. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and you should consult with your firm on its policy as it pertains to this kind of behavior.  My suggestions are simply the processes that I have used before.

Respond to it

First try to defuse the situation and do it publicly.  Address the offending person head on but not in a challenging way.  I typically try to offer help.  Ask if there is a concern that is not being addressed.  Offer to do something for the bully to distract the behavior.  Do not challenge the person directly, call him or her names, or make any sort of threat. I typically try to defuse with a little humor at my own expense, such as, “Maybe I can help by using my hammer and chisel to get your drawing out of the plotter.”

Ask them to stop – verbally. Don’t act as if the behavior is acceptable.  Defusing comments such as “that may not be the best way to address your concerns” are on the light side and statements such as “I do not want to see that happen again” is a little more direct.  I tend to use the phrase “That is not acceptable” when dealing with the bad choices someone makes in a bullying situation.

Report it

You need to let the person’s manager know that an incident occurred.  Let the manager know the facts and what you saw and heard.  Don’t make any other comments – just stick to the facts. Don’t say what you “think”, report what you know.  Don’t draw conclusions or make judgment calls unless asked to do so. 

Depending on the severity, you may need to inform human resources. And if there was any physical contact you must go to HR immediately.

Keep records

Some people in this situation suggest extensive recordkeeping.  If the person has a pattern of this kind of behavior, that may be needed.  If the person is under some sort of probationary period of employment, then it might be required.  Here is what I have been asked to do for more advanced cases:

  • Date of the incident (s)
  • Location
  • Time
  • Nature of the incident (s)
  • Your involvement
  • Your observations of the event
  • Any action taken by you
  • The names of any witnesses

If it is an isolated event, just make a note of it in your journal (you do keep some kind of journal at work, don’t you?).

Escalate the response if necessary

Apply more and more restrictive guidelines or requirements if the person does not stop. Make sure that everyone knows that you will address bad behavior and restrict access to areas in order to protect co-workers.  By protecting others, you gain allies.  The more people at your firm who refuse to tolerate irresponsible behavior and bullying, the less it will occur.

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