Crack The Behavior Code

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How to Stop Workplace Bullies in Their Tracks

Season 3, Ep. 8

How to Stop Workplace Bullies in Their Tracks

The VP of Finance constantly interrupts and actively prevents others from speaking in meetings. He scoffs when they share ideas or make suggestions.

A Managing Director at a financial services firm publicly trashes another Director’s new strategy, tearing it apart, without having the domain expertise to truly understand what she is saying.

The lead software engineer makes snide remarks about the product development process during team meetings. He publicly denounces the marketing team too.

What do these three have in common? They’re bullies.

Bullies are scary, shocking, embarrassing and far too often tolerated in the workplace. Why? Because we don’t want to have to deal with them, we don’t want the attack, the conflict, the discomfort. So we either pretend they aren’t wreaking havoc, or we grit our teeth and tolerate them.

It’s time to stop.

How We Let Bullies Thrive

"Paul," the COO of a consumer-packaged goods company manages the VP of Finance bully I mentioned earlier. During coaching, Paul realized how he tolerates, and even allows, this unacceptable behavior.

Here’s how Paul is enabling the bully:

  • He lets inappropriate conduct occur in meetings – when Paul could stop the bully from constantly interrupting and preventing others from speaking. Paul must clarify what appropriate meeting etiquette specifically is, and ensure it is honored.
  • He acts as a go-between when the bully refuses to interact with people he thinks are “stupid”– when Paul could make it clear to both parties that they need to work things out together.
  • He holds his anger in and compromises his integrity – when Paul could just deal with this issue directly, modeling leadership for his team and showing them a safe, respectful, collaborative work environment is required at the company.
  • He lets others vent to him about the bully — instead of creating an opportunity to let disgruntled parties communicate their grievances directly and interface with HR.

We all avoid uncomfortable human relations issues sometimes… but what is the cost? Exorbitant--as we daily give our power away, compromise our integrity, and inadvertently teach our team that bullying is acceptable.

The Surprising Truth About What Bullies Want

I have talked before about how we all crave safety, belonging and mattering. Often one of these is exactly what the bully wants – he or she is just trying to get it in an ineffective and inappropriate way. Take a guess at what each of the following bullies wants:

  • Person X puts others down, makes them feel small, condescends… because inside they don’t feel they …what?
  • Person Y spreads fear, rumors, negative gossip… because inside they don’t feel …what?
  • Person Z talks about inequality, unfairness, how others get special treatment because inside they feel they don’t …what?

The answers are mattering, safety, and belonging. Once you uncover what a bully wants, you can start to give it to them, to begin reducing what Seth Godin calls the tantrum cycle. We can also then help shift the bully from tension to empowerment. More on this in a minute.

The Three-Step Bully Rehab Plan

There are three steps to stop bullying:

1. Identify how you are enabling it, like Paul, the COO in our example earlier.

2. End the enabling system

The bully is generally playing the persecutor role, which creates the need for a rescuer to protect the victim. Then the train has left the proverbial station and we’re zooming ahead on a ride to a place we don’t want to go. We want to shift from Problem-Focused to Outcome-Focused.

We want to quickly interrupt the pattern of persecutor-victim-rescuer and step out of the system by using an Outcome Frame. Ask the bully:

  1. What would you like? (the outcome they desire that they can create and maintain)
  2. What will having that do for you? (how they’ll feel and the benefits they’ll get)
  3. How will you know when you have it? (proof or criteria that will be present)
  4. Where, when, with whom do you want this? (timing, who else, scope)
  5. What might of value you have to risk to get this? (is it ok for them to have this outcome?)
  6. What are the next steps?

Ask the question “What will having that do for you” a few times, as often this is where what they really want is revealed. The Outcome Frame is a potent tool to get a person to focus on the outcome, and not the problem—it helps them get unstuck. Then you can shift to an outcome-focused pattern, where the victim/rescuer/persecutor have shifted to their positive alternative.

The Third Step in the Bully Rehab Plan is to:

-Set up a new system with healthy boundaries and behaviors (rich with safety, belonging, mattering and shifting from tension to empowerment.)

Note that if the bully is above you on the org chart, you’ll need a mentor equal or greater in stature to the bully to do the following.

Our clients love our conflict resolution process (bullies or not).

  1. Set the stage – explain why you’re meeting and the outcome you want (to form a collaborative turnaround plan)
  2. State observable data/behavior – this is where you describe specific behaviors that must change and examples so the bully can “step into” the past scenarios
  3. Describe impact – the damage that these behaviors are doing to others/the company/the bully themselves
  4. Check problem acknowledgement – do they agree that there is a problem? Do they agree this problem now must end?
  5. Co-create a plan – set a time period (of 30 to 60 days) where you’ll meet weekly for 15-30 minutes to track their progress on releasing the challenging. Make the plan very specific in terms of what you need to see and when you’ll know you got the outcome you wanted (use the Outcome Frame tool to help). If the turnaround doesn’t occur, state clearly what the consequences will be (such as losing their job).
  6. Check understanding – is everything clear? Anything else we need to cover? Reiterate desire for a positive resolution so the consequences can become irrelevant.
  7. Build small agreements – launch the plan and commit to ending the conflict once and for all. Be sure to track it frequently and make sure all concerned see the behavior change too.

I’m thrilled to report that the Managing Director and software engineer now play well with colleagues, and the VP of Finance is in the turnaround process with positive momentum.

Try this process and let me know how it goes!


Show Notes

1.    Safety, Belonging, Mattering infographic

2.    Tantrum cycle: Seth’s Blog: https://seths.blog/2013/11/extinguishing-the-tantrum-cycle/

3.    Power Your Tribe graphic: Shifting from Problem-Focused to Outcome-Focused

4.    Outcome Frame infographic


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