Workplace bullying: we know how to deal with it, right? Part 2 of 2

Dr Mike Talbot Articles, Uncategorised

Part 2. Working with the difficult situations

In the second part of his piece on the more difficult aspects of workplace bullying, Dr. Mike Talbot lifts the lid on the kinds of practical steps we can take.

Workplace bullying: what about the difficult stuff?

In the first part of this article, I looked at some of the basics that employers can put in place to manage workplace bullying better, and some of the reasons why bullying is still an under-reported problem. I unpacked a few of the psychiatric labels that get applied to people whose bullying behaviours seem more deep-rooted, and wondered how helpful these labels are when we are trying to work with such individuals to build more comfortable and productive working relationships.

So, if someone who repeatedly bullies others actually has enough insight, inclination, and aptitude to be able to restrain their bullying behaviour, what can we do to bring out the best in them?

No such thing as a difficult person?

I am going to focus on the individuals who exhibit bullying behaviours repeatedly and who appear not to respond to the more basic and lower-level remedies that organisations would normally put in place. I argued in the first part of the article that, from a psychotherapeutic perspective, such a person usually shows traits of DSM-5’s cluster B, ‘dramatic, emotional, or erratic’ type of personality, and is actually trying to manage emotional states that may be traced back to early trauma, possibly from childhood. They humiliate, shame, depersonalise and belittle people as way to put their own difficult feelings into someone else, and/or to avoid re-experiencing those feelings for themselves.

Their behaviours are unacceptable in any workplace, and if the person is unable or unwilling to self-restrain their behaviours, then the organisation must do the restraining for them, ultimately to the point of removing that person from the workplace. That said, my own experience is that the person is behaving in ways that are largely out of awareness, and their behaviours are motivated by some powerful and hard to manage internal states. And while this is little consolation to anyone on the receiving end of such conduct, it does give us some kind of starting point from which to start working with such behaviours.

Practical Steps

I am often asked to work with people who are accused of ‘bullying’ (albeit I shudder at the term, and how inaccurately it is used), and whose behaviour continues despite the quiet word, early disciplinary action, etc.

Working along with my very trusted team at UK Mediation, my intervention would usually be for team facilitation, conflict coaching, or workplace mediation, all of which would tend to start with a private one-to-one session with the person.

When beginning such an intervention with someone, my thinking would go along the lines of:

  1. Safety first. Has the organisation’s leadership (including management and HR working together) taken every step to mitigate the damaging effects of this person’s alleged conduct? I would want to know that any alleged serious incidents had been investigated, that appropriate safeguards were in place, and that the person is aware of the consequences of any unacceptable behaviour. If the organisation ignores, or in some other way condones the person’s behaviour (it happens!), then I might be wasting everyone’s time with a close-in intervention like this. A more organisation-wide approach would be needed
  2. Consider the context. What is the contribution of the wider environment to this person’s conduct? Does the culture in any way encourage this kind of behaviour, by way of a bullying hierarchy, for example. If there is a chance that this person is passing-it-down, and repeating behaviours that he or she is in fact being subjected to, then the current task is going to be more difficult for both of us
  3. Who needs to be involved? Is this about a pervasive behaviour pattern that generalises to anyone the person comes across, or is it about a relationship with one or more individuals? Part of an intervention must be to consider whether the focus is more on a specific character trait or behaviour pattern, or whether it is more about relationships with others. In the latter case, which is common, the initial work would partly involve preparing the person for mediation.
  4. What’s possible? An essential question as we get started: does the person have enough insight (just a little will do) to allow some behavioural change to take place? And is this the right time to be making an intervention like this? If we are aiming for this person to exhibit more positive, collaborative, and restrained behaviours, I need to assess firstly whether there is at least a chance that this could happen. We are not doing therapy here, and only have a briefly-opened window into this person’s world. If they really struggle to change, perhaps a conversation with Occupational Health, or a referral to their Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for counselling might be a better idea, and less frustrating for all concerned.

Bringing out the best in people

My aim in a one-to one session is to help the person to develop some insight and awareness into what they do, and why, and to then use that awareness to invite the person to experiment with behaving differently.

We will talk through situations of conflict that they have found challenging (mostly situations that they, not I, want to talk about: otherwise they will believe they are being accused, by the way). I might see if they are up for some present-tense descriptions (re-experiencing) of such situations to get to their thoughts and feelings about difficult interactions, and to gently invite them to look for links between how they thought, felt, and acted, and what were the consequences of their actions.

Pitfalls and opportunities

Although I am not doing therapy with people (did I mention that?), I am using quite a lot of the skills and knowledge that I would have brought to bear in twelve years working as a psychotherapist. And in these interventions, as in therapy, I am acutely aware of some of the difficult features of working with people whose personality is in this ‘dramatic, emotional, or erratic’ zone. So, I would be wary of the following:

  • Blaming and shaming just do not work. Someone of this personality type will become highly defensive when accused, and will be fearful of being made to feel small or inadequate. I have to focus on positive future behaviour with the person, not on past misdemeanours
  • I will achieve more as their ally, rather than as their enemy. By default, the person will tend to relate to others with mistrust. I have to try and turn this into co-operation. Along with what I do as a gestalt psychotherapist, I have found a couple of the ideas and techniques of the High Conflict Institute to be helpful in this regard
  • Small steps are better than no steps. Someone with these character traits will need a lot of encouragement to make even small changes, and will find reflecting on their own behaviour to be quite challenging. I need to get quite empathically attuned to the person and to set quite small, achievable goals

And this is how the delicate work with this person would proceed. If we are conflict coaching, I would have a series of sessions with them, with goal-setting, practical targets, and telephone/Skype check-ins along the way. If we were preparing for team facilitation or workplace mediation, the work would be about preparing the individual to meet with some or all of their team and to have some constructive dialogue about how better to structure their working relationships.

In any case, I would hope to get to a point where three things change: the person starts to behave and interact with more choice and awareness and with less compulsion, they start to communicate more assertively and less aggressively, and in the absence of fully developed empathy (which would be hard for them), they can at least take and trust feedback from others about the impact of their words and actions.

Putting it together

What I hope I have done in the two parts of this article is to take a closer look at workplace bullying and to give some of my own suggestions for how we can do the close-in remedial work with people whose behaviours, if unchecked, could otherwise wreck lives, careers, and whole organisations.

I have talked about the need for both stick and carrot in this approach: we need to ensure that the person who bullies is aware that their behaviours are unacceptable and will be addressed with disciplinary measures if necessary. Only then will we have a basis to be able to effectively coach, counsel, and mediate, to get that person’s relationships back to where the organisation needs them to be.

Organisations definitely need to remove people who bully and who will not change. However, for those who are genuinely prepared to change we need to understand how best to give them the opportunity to learn, develop, and improve their relational skills, and so to continue to be valued and productive employees.


PS. I’m presenting a free webinar on the subject of workplace bullying and harassment. It’s at 12pm on 7th July and I’ll be expanding upon some of these themes more. There’s limited availability for the webinar, so make sure you book your place today. Hope to see you there.