96% of survey respondents have experienced bullying at work, and 54% of workplace bullies have been at it for 5-plus years
Brian regularly emailed his direct reports at all hours of the night. When one didn’t immediately answer, he would hurl a volley of emailed threats and personal insults. Team members felt afraid, vulnerable, and helpless. Many quit. The turnover cost millions of dollars – not to mention the disruption of service to customers. In spite of employees’ attempts to complain, Brian’s behavior continued for years. Here are other real stories:
- “My former manager would lash out, using foul language, telling the entire staff they were acting like idiots. Then turn silent. For 15 years he was moved from one department to another.”
- “The assistant to our VP is a control freak. She hangs up on you, micromanages, and ‘owns’ the conference room and the supply closet. Everyone talks behind her back, but no will approach her, because of the boss – with whom she had an affair. I am looking for a new job.”
- “Our CEO would regularly say, ‘You’re so stupid’ and, ‘You should be cleaning toilets instead of doing proposals.’ He threw things, slammed things, and forced quitting employees to a ‘walk of shame’ around the office. Everyone feared standing up to him, including his own wife, who also worked here.”
According to a new study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-authors of New York Times bestsellers Crucial Conversations and Influencer, 96 percent of respondents say they have experienced workplace bullying. Eighty-nine percent of those bullies have been at it for more than a year; 54 percent for more than five years. In some cases, the survey found, bullies have continued in the same job for 30-plus years.
“We were astonished that in so many cases the person most likely to remain in his or her job was the bully,” said Grenny. “Bullying can’t persist unless there is a complete breakdown in all four systems of accountability – personal (the victim himself or herself), peer (others who witness the behavior), supervisory (hierarchical leaders), and formal discipline (HR). So it was shocking to see in how many organizations not just one – but all four of these systems were terribly weak.”
Equally surprising was the widespread effect of bullying. It was rare that the alleged bully picked a single target. In fact, 80 percent of respondents said the bully affected five or more people.
So, how do you stop a bully? The study showed that the most effective deterrent is the skillful verbal intervention of the person being targeted. Next most effective is informal peer accountability. While in high-accountability organizations all four must be strong – personal, peer, boss and formal discipline – the study showed that the first breakdown is the first. When individuals and peers who experience or see bullying say nothing, the bully gets emboldened. And the more who join in the silence, the more evidence the bully has that the behavior is sustainable.
A lack of formal policies similarly enables bullying. Only 51 percent say their company has a policy for dealing with bullies, and only 7 percent know of anyone who has ever used that policy. (Six percent say the policy did work to stop a bully.)
According to the study, workplace bullying takes on a variety of forms. Of those who had seen or experienced bullying:
- 62% saw sabotaging of others work or reputations
- 52% saw browbeating, threats, or intimidation
- 4% saw physical intimidation or assault
Grenny and Maxfield offered specific tips for dealing with a workplace bully:
- Reverse your thinking. Most of us suffer in silence because all we consider are the risks of speaking up. Those who speak up and hold others accountable tend to do the opposite. They think first about the risks of NOT speaking up. Then they give thought to the risks of speaking up. Changing the order of the risk assessment makes you much more likely to take action.
- Facts first.Present your information, as if talking to a jury. Stick with the detailed facts. Strip out any judgmental or provocative language and be specific.
- Validate concerns. Often the bullying behavior was triggered by some legitimate concern. Be sure to validate that need – while demonstrating an unwillingness to tolerate the way it was handled.
- Share natural consequences. Let them know what the consequences are of this way of handling their concerns – to you, others, customers, work projects, etc.
- Hold boundaries.Let them know how you expect to be treated in the future. Ask for their commitment. And let them know what your next step will be if there is a recurrence.
“When dealing with a bully, too often we fall victim to thinking ‘this is how they are, and nothing I do will change them or their actions,’” said Maxfield. “Actually, years of research prove that’s not true. A bully can change if someone stands up to him or her and helps them see the consequences of their actions. Otherwise, it will simply continue.”
A final thought: Being bullied is also expensive, according to the study. Twenty percent said dealing with workplace bullies cost them 7-plus hours a week in lost time. That’s $8,800 in lost wages to those workers or their employers every year.
Note to Editor: Grenny and Maxfield are available for interview. For a high-res infographic of the survey, click here.
An innovator in corporate training and leadership development, VitalSmarts is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything Training and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. When used in combination, these courses enable organizations to achieve new levels of performance by changing employee behavior. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than one million people worldwide.