Biden’s Anti-Bullying Bulletin Backfires
There is no doubt about it: kindness is more important than ever these days, and with a former president who modeled bullying for the entirety of the country, more and more company leaders and educators are wondering how to reiterate the importance of treating peers and colleagues with thoughtfulness, patience, and goodwill. However, teaching people to be kind and avoid workplace bullying isn't as simple as it seems. In fact, some strategies employed by those at the top may even backfire, resulting in even more workplace bullying and encouraging this sort of misbehavior, rather than encouraging everyone to treat each other well. If you lead an organization, and you want to ensure that the dynamics within your team stay healthy and functional, read on. You can learn about what workplace anti-bullying tactics are, why they don't work, and how you can effectively help instruct a group to treat each other kindly.
Workplace Anti-Bullying Messaging at the Top: Biden's Approach
Now that Donald Trump is no longer in office and President Biden has begun his term, the message coming from the top of the country is starkly different: workplace bullying and unkindness from people is no longer remotely acceptable. In fact, Biden warned members of his cabinet and staff that if anyone was a bully, or was caught being unkind and unfair to anyone else, they'd be "fired on the spot!" While anti-bullying experts laud President Biden on his new message that focuses on kindness and consideration and the desire to ensure his team functions smoothly, they believe that his tactic may not be very effective. In fact, some warn that it may be downright harmful, resulting in more workplace bullying than before—or simply an ineffective, unhappy workplace rather than a reduction in unkind behavior and an environment that functions better than it had before.
Why Biden's Anti-Bullying Approach May Be Ineffective
Biden had good intentions telling workplace bullies they won't be tolerated. However, by setting himself up as a boss who can remove people whose behavior he deems unacceptable on the spot, Biden creates a workforce where people are immediately wary and scared about their own behavior. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is: "repeated, harmful mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees and abusive conduct." A no-tolerance bullying policy in the workplace where firing is the immediate punishment creates a work environment where people may walk on eggshells, afraid of the repercussions of what they might say, and avoiding the boss in fear of what his actions towards them might be. In a workplace where the boss will quickly dismiss a bully, those with closer relationships to the boss may be seen as having unfair access to the man in charge—this means that they may have the opportunity to "punish" someone they don't like or don't want around by simply reporting that person was being a bully, without a fair and thorough investigation to uncover the reality of the situation. In an opinion piece for Charlottesville's The Daily Progress writer Shenandoah Titus also explains that Biden's workplace anti-bullying policy may also create a difficult environment for the very necessary whistleblower who holds our leaders accountable; while whistleblowers are often seen as unpleasant and troublemakers, they also do work that is good and important for a larger population (the entire country), and they should be able to do what they feel they are morally compelled to, without being terribly afraid of losing their livelihood.
Anti-Bullying Policies Often Foster an Environment of "Telling"—and Increased Bullying
When anti-bullying with immediate firing as a punishment exists as the policy in a work environment, and employees are instructed to simply report bullies, it creates what psychologist Izzy Kalman calls an environment of "telling." This means that a bullied party may report bullying to an authority, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the authority will handle the situation in the proper way. This often leaves the bully and bullied in the same position as before, with an angry and provoked bully; this often results in bullying that is far harsher and more unkind than before the "telling." Rather than encourage employees to simply "tell" if they've experienced workplace bullying, experts recommend setting up anti-bullying clear, understandable policies and procedures that include a "pre-complaint" process. They should also lay out, clearly, what qualifies as bullying that should be reported, for example, if you are in tangible, physical danger; if a law is being broken; if someone is extremely emotionally affected/suffering because of the abuse. Having a laid out process and definition encourages employees to come forward (safely) in situations that call for reporting. In addition to having policies about how to handle the pre-complaint and complaint process, leaders should also work to clearly define and communicate how to handle situations where they are encountering unkindness: calling out that bullying for what it is; explaining that it's unacceptable; talking through disagreements so that both sides feel happy and content about the resolution. Taking these steps will help you—as a leader and authority figure—avoid the responsibility of having to play both investigator and judge as much as you possibly can.
Teach Healthy Relationship Building
Multiple studies have shown that zero-tolerance bullying programs with immediate dismissals don't actually help fix the problem of bullying. What can help ensure that people treat each other kindly and behave with dignity and respect is teaching employees relationship-building skills, and giving them the opportunity to connect and bond. By having ice breakers, social events, retreats, and activities specifically intended to help people in the workplace form connections, you can help ensure that people know and respect one another—this can inherently help prevent bullying behavior. You may also bring in psychologists and coaches who can teach employees how to de-escalate and work through conflict. Bullying can arise when people are unhappy with a situation and don't know how else to handle it. When trained properly about how to handle conditions or dynamics that they don't like, people can avoid bullying entirely—or communicate about why it's happening and resolve it, rather than rashly punish someone who inappropriately expressed his or her discontentment.
Model Healthy Behavior and Communication Skills as a Leader
In a workplace, the tone of the environment is set at the top. It's absolutely crucial, therefore, that company leaders are well-versed in healthy relationship dynamics; that they avoid meanness and bullying themselves at all costs; and that they foster an environment where open communication and conflict resolution is the norm. Because people look to their leaders to see how to behave, ensuring that there is no bad behavior modeled by leaders is crucial. Regularly training leaders and managers (giving them more training than their team members) is important since they are the figures who will set an organization's overall tone. This is another instance in which strict anti-bullying policies lose their steam: rather than encourage people to act with kindness, leaders who immediately punish people for unkind behavior show rigidness, lack of open communication, and unfairness.
Build Your Team Up So That Every Employee Feels Confident
Ultimately, bullies act the way that they do in the workplace because they feel inadequate. The feelings of being "less than" cause them to act out, inflicting their own pain onto someone else. Ensure that no one suffers from feelings of inadequacy by regularly working to build your team up. Give out praise regularly; call out people who perform well; consider using employee rewards programs to help people tangibly see how good their performance has been; and use overall encouraging and supportive language when addressing employees, rather than being punitive or critical. By addressing and avoiding a problem—employees who lack self-esteem—at its root, you can help ensure that you avoid workplace bullying behaviors in-office.
Avoid Anti-Bullying; Foster Safety, Support and Communication
At the end of the day, most people would like bullying to have no place in government, leadership, business, the classroom, or anywhere that humans interact as a group. However, discouraging workplace bullying and explaining why it is an unacceptable behavior choice that will be punished at all costs isn't as simple as it seems. Approaching workplace bullying by saying it's completely forbidden and will result in removal is not a tactic that has shown to work or to help groups of people become more functional and effectual. In reality, it's a tactic that has backfired and may end up resulting in more bullying than before a punishm
ent. However, not having a zero-tolerance bullying policy doesn’t mean there is no need for a policy. A well-crafted and implemented anti-workplace bullying policy and procedure document is the cornerstone to building employee trust and minimizing bullying. Focusing on positive behavior and encouragement, sets a tone of confidence and openness, and helps people establish healthy relationships and communication. The written policy ensures that, when there is a problem, it will be addressed equitably and effectively. It reinforces the message from the top in a way that is tangible for employees. You can help organizational teams avoid bullying completely, and ultimately not have to worry about bullies thriving by setting the tone, having those policies and leading with compassion. (Even for the bullies!)
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