You can’t rely on a speak up culture to eliminate bullying. You need a step up culture.

You can’t rely on a speak up culture to eliminate bullying because if you have bullying you don’t have a speak up culture. Bullying creates an environment which targets fear. Speak up and be isolated from the team. The team, therefore, is effectively silenced because no one wants to become the next target. The result? No one speaks up until it’s too late.

Bullying and harassment occurs in society and in workplaces for 2 reasons.
1. People choose to behave that way.
2. Others let them.

People choose to behave that way

There are a number of ways in which people choose to manifest bullying behaviour but a very similar single motivation for all of them. A feeling of inadequacy or devaluation caused by belief that “GOOD” is limited to one set of physical, psychological and social traits. The traits they have, or the traits they want others to believe they have. This belief is challenged by the presence of people who are fundamentally different, people who may be more proficient in those traits, and views other traits as just as important, valuable and equal. This devaluation of their personal traits is perceived as a threat and elicits defensive behaviours.

Defensive behaviours

Deflection – refocusing attention onto other’s inadequacies rather than their own. Deflection results in targets believing the rest of the team will side with the bully – they are doing nothing to stop them so they must support the behaviour. In reality peers know that to speak up means you will be the next target. So they don’t.
Dissociation – devaluing characteristics that they don’t have.
Overcompensation – engaging in behaviours that give the impression that they are more proficient in something than they are. This may involve taking credit for others work or setting others up to make themselves look better. Dissociation and overcompensation leaves targets feeling devalued and isolated, particularly if they are of a minority group. Targets think that if they speak up they won’t be believed, they will be accused of being oversensitive or that they are somehow the cause of the behaviour as it is not happening to anyone else. So they don’t.

Power Assertion – taking advantage of power to threaten or remove someone that threatens them.
Power Assertion means that the targets believe speaking up will result in the behaviour getting worse, career damage or termination. So they don’t.

In short, bullying, by its nature of emotional manipulation, creates an environment that inherently discourages speaking up which is enabled by inaction in a self-fulfilling cycle. To tackle bullying you need to create a STEP-UP culture. One in which employees and frontline leaders can step up to identify bullying behaviour and support targets and other team members to resolve it. Tackling bullying and harassment requires knowledge, confidence, time and support.

Tackling bullying and harassment

If frontline leaders and team members have not been trained specifically in how to identify and address bullying behaviour, they will not be aware it is happening, much less have confidence in their ability to support a target and the rest of the team through a resolution process. This training is particularly important for 24/7 crews who largely determine their own cultures due to their isolation from interaction with anyone but those on their crew for any length of time. Leaders can influence the team culture but ultimately the members will determine it, so it’s important that they have the same knowledge as the leader and are aware of their personal responsibilities in this space.

There is never enough time to do everything so how do frontline leaders and team members prioritise what gets done? How do they know what’s important? How important is making sure that people are ok compared to all the other tasks that your frontline leaders and team members undertake? How do you message this? What is measured and reviewed and how often. It is very easy to prioritise the production targets, sampling rounds, routine activities, safety observations, incident investigations, Gemba walks, continuous improvement activities and projects, maintenance notifications, handover logs, problem solving, breakdowns and meetings. Are you concentrating on what people do or how they do it? Both are important.

How well are your frontline leaders supported when dealing with these issues? What processes and support personnel are in place? Is there 24/7 support for shift leaders or does it wait until the next weekday day shift? Will you support eliminating bullying even if it means a taking a perceived commercial risk? There is no doubt that bullying can achieve business results. What if bullies are commercially valuable to the business for their knowledge or productivity? What if bullies will take a long time to replace, such as process operator roles where significant training and time is required to attain high levels of site-specific competency and knowledge? Are you prepared to risk upsetting these people or even lose them to eliminate bullying from your business?

What examples have been set and what messages have been sent about what happens to those who address bullying behaviours? How committed do frontline employees and leaders feel your business is to eliminating bullying? If employees or leaders feel that there will be detriment to their employment or career they will hesitate to step up. If there has been a negative view about addressing bullying concerns in the past where raising them resulted in a negative reflection on the leader or the individual rather than assigning responsibility, rightly, to the individual who chooses to behave in this way, this affects people’s confidence to address the concerns. What if people who publicly spoke up about bullying and harassment “disappeared”? This sends a very strong message that this type of advocacy is unwelcome and is detrimental to career or employment. It discourages others from action and enables more of the behaviour.

Eliminating Bullying and harassment

Is there an active strategy and implementation plan for eliminating bullying in your business? How aware are people of it? Are there awareness campaigns and recognition of those who have addressed bullying behaviours positively? How much have you invested in enabling your employees with the knowledge, support and time to eliminate bullying? What are you going to do differently to address bullying? If you always do what you’ve always done – nothing changes. We ALL need to do something differently to eliminate bullying.

Sharlie Morrison
Diversity & Inclusion Specialist

With over 15 years’ experience in various senior leadership roles in the Mining, Manufacturing, and Resources Industry. Sharlie is committed to sharing her Diversity & Inclusion expertise with clients to engage and empower the talents of every employee in their business, creating a diverse, inclusive, and sustainable workplace culture.   If you would like to read more about Sharlie and her workshops on Essemy click this link.