Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations

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Can bystander intervention training help us to address workplace bullying and other forms of on-the-job mistreatment?

That was a major question on my mind when I made a quick trip to New York City this past weekend for a bystander intervention training session hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn and facilitated by trainers Kirsten deFur and Julia Martin.

The overall focus of this excellent introductory training was not on bullying per se, but rather on everyday types of harassment and aggressive conflict that we may encounter in various public settings. Many of the scenarios discussed by participants involved harassment on the subways. For we urban dwellers, a public subway system is often the great equalizer, where we’re all randomly tossed into a mix of humanity. It’s hardly surprising that situations often arise in such close-quartered settings.

The training gave us a valuable overall framework for understanding the dynamics of bystander intervention, emphasizing points to think about instead of pretending to have a one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some of the key takeaways for me:

  • “Bystander paralysis” is normal; we freeze up for a variety of reasons and don’t take action. Intervention training is designed to help us get beyond that.
  • In terms of steps, among other things, we have to assess the situation (very challenging at times), decide whether to get involved, and intervene effectively. We typically don’t have much time to go through this process.
  • Specific interventions vary, including the “Four Ds” of direct, distract, delegate, or delay.
  • At times, not getting involved is the right decision.
  • De-escalation of the situation is the ideal process outcome.
  • This is not easy.

I deeply appreciated the grounded quality of the training and dialogue. This was not about preaching against inaction or indifference. Rather, the session assumed we were all there because we cared about this topic, and then implicitly understood that taking action in these situations must be done wisely.

What about the workplace?

So how do I answer the question I posed above? Yes, bystander intervention training may help us to develop approaches for dealing with bullying and abuse at work, but we need to take the discussion deeper than this terrific intro session to reach that point. Indeed, in a short conversation I had with trainer Kirsten deFur after the session, we concurred that bystander intervention in workplace scenarios can be especially complicated.

For those of us interested in bullying in any environment (school, work, community, and so on), bystander reactions and responses have become an increasing point of attention. As I’ve observed many times here, all too often those experiencing bullying also bear witness to bystander abandonment. In the workplace, this can include co-workers who were regarded as friends. For what it’s worth, here are some of my initial observations and caveats concerning bystander intervention at work:

  • Assessing a situation can be especially hard in a work setting. Obvious verbal and physical harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, and other factors is easy to comprehend. But so many other workplace mistreatment scenarios — especially bullying — involve combinations of overt and covert behavior. Claims of covert, indirect mistreatment may be especially challenging to to unpack and understand.
  • Legal protections come into play, too. A bystander intervening in a sexual harassment situation may be protected under anti-retaliation provisions of employment discrimination laws. However, a bystander intervening in a generic bullying situation may be without legal protections, because — at least in the U.S. — we have yet to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying laws.
  • At times it may be wise to get permission of the targeted individual before intervening. Someone may, for example, be willing to tolerate a certain level of mistreatment while quietly seeking a new job to escape the toxic work situation. Perhaps that individual has good reason to know that an intervention, however well-intended, may backfire.
  • Power relationships matter greatly in this context. Let’s say you have a supervisor mistreating a subordinate. That supervisor’s boss could likely intervene without getting into any trouble. But an intervention by another subordinate of that supervisor may simply add another name to the target list. It’s not to say that the subordinate shouldn’t intervene, but the risks of doing so are much greater — and with a much lower likelihood of success.

Yes, this is a pretty sobering assessment. But as the training session in Brooklyn reinforced, bystander intervention, while motivated by some of our best instincts, is not easy stuff. It’s a topic to be embraced with both heart and wisdom.

“Rage-aholic” behavior and intermittent explosive disorder

Mayo Clinic webpage

Mayo Clinic webpage

Informally, we might call them “rage-aholics.” You know, those persons who dial up their anger from 0 to 90 miles per hour in a split second, seemingly at the slightest provocation. They account for many instances of negative and abusive workplace behaviors: Bullying, incivility, and physical violence. We also see plenty of them in domestic violence situations.

Some of these individuals may have a clinically diagnosable condition called intermittent explosive disorder. The Mayo Clinic describes IED this way:

Intermittent explosive disorder involves repeated, sudden episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation. Road rage, domestic abuse, throwing or breaking objects, or other temper tantrums may be signs of intermittent explosive disorder.

These intermittent, explosive outbursts cause you significant distress, negatively impact your relationships, work and school, and they can have legal and financial consequences.

Intermittent explosive disorder is a chronic disorder that can continue for years, although the severity of outbursts may decrease with age. Treatment involves medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses.

IED appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the current 5th edition of the DSM now recognizes verbal aggression as a qualifying behavior. The National Institute for Mental Health has estimated that some 16 million Americans may be affected by IED during some point in their lives.

I’ll offer my hypothesis that online communications, especially e-mail and social media, are fueling behaviors that might be dubbed rage-aholic and could reflect the presence of IED. We’re certainly seeing a lot of that rapidly dialed-up anger online these days, and it’s adding to our stress and anxiety levels. Alas, the comments following many an article or Facebook posting about the current political season might suggest an epidemic.

Brilliant primer on psychological trauma and its treatment: “The Body Keeps the Score”

In my continuing efforts to learn about psychological trauma wrought by workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, I’m diving into Dr. Bessel van der Kolk‘s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014). It is the most lucid, accessible, and hopeful book about psychological trauma and possibilities for successful treatment that I’ve encountered, authored by one of the pioneering experts in the field.

Dr. van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. Here’s a blurb about his book from his webpage:

. . . (H)e transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring—specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. He shows how these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, play, yoga, and other therapies. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score offers proven alternatives to drugs and talk therapy—and a way to reclaim lives.

The Body Keeps the Score does not specifically discuss bullying behaviors as triggers for psychological trauma. But that absence should not chase away anyone who recognizes the trauma-inducing qualities of work abuse and wants to understand the dynamics of PTSD and its expanding array of promising treatment options.

A decade ago, when I began studying PTSD in connection with my work on workplace bullying, I despaired to find erudite analyses of this condition, concluding with pessimistic assessments on the likelihood of successful treatments. This book sounds a much more hopeful tone, grounded in leading edge research and practice.

I’m going to be saying more about The Body Keeps the Score in future posts, but for now I’m pleased to report that this is a potential difference maker for many who are experiencing the ravages of abusive work environments.

Worker safety and gun violence in the academic workplace

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During the past two weeks, shootings resulting in multiple fatalities and severe injuries at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University have caused understandable alarm at many institutions of higher education. Recent entries in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s campus safety link read like a horrible crime blotter:

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Not surprisingly, many who work in colleges and universities are asking, what if it happens here? Do we know what to do? The answer, apparently, is that levels of readiness vary widely. Here’s a brief excerpt of an Associated Press examination of training and protocols for on-campus gun incidents at public universities in over 40 states, reported by Lisa Leff and Ryan J. Foley:

At some institutions, such as the Colorado School of Mines and Arkansas State University, training on how to respond to an armed intruder has become as much a part of fall orientation as lessons on alcohol abuse. Students hear presentations covering their options, such as running, hiding or fighting back.

Other schools have purely voluntary training. Or they put information on what to do in an emergency on websites, where it can easily be overlooked by students and staff members. Many public college and university systems leave it up to their individual campuses to draw up emergency plans and decide what level of training, if any, to give employees and students.

Overall, those employed in higher education settings have reason to be concerned about the safety of their work environments. True, the statistical probability of gun violence will likely continue to pale to that of other safety risks in higher education settings. But we should not be surprised when more shootings occur. The reasons for this are many and intertwined, including America’s gun culture, mental health concerns, and the stressors present on our college campuses.

Sheila Keegan’s “The Psychology of Fear in Organizations”

I’ve been spending some time with The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) by Dr. Sheila M. Keegan, a British consultant and psychologist, and it’s a keeper. It doesn’t sugar coat the difficult realities of working conditions in so many organizations, yet it also looks ahead at what we can do to change them.

Dr. Keegan has done her homework for this book. Those who are attentive to high levels of fear and anxiety in many modern workplaces will find plenty of research and analysis that validates their concerns.

For those specifically interested in workplace bullying, there’s a subchapter that covers the basics, including references to work done by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The deeper value of this volume is how it places bullying and other negative behaviors in an organizational context.

Indeed, I consider the book title itself to be a triumph of messaging, expressly linking fear at work to organizations. After all, rare is the lone wolf supervisor or co-worker who makes everyone’s work life a misery, amidst an otherwise happy, functional workplace. Organizational cultures typically enable practices and behaviors that fuel fear, anxiety, and foreboding at work.

As far as responses and solutions go, Dr. Keegan’s prescriptions are more easily implemented in new organizations than in those with entrenched, negative cultures, but that reality can hardly be blamed on her. She helpfully identifies myriad ways in which leaders can transform their institutions. And rather than trying to sell us on an I’ve-got-the-magic-answer formula endemic to too many consultants, she offers choices based on an impressive range of research.

This is a valuable book that brings together a lot of information and insight, and it will be useful to researchers, educators, and evidence-based practitioners alike. I’ll be returning to it often.

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From the table of contents of The Psychology of Fear in Organizations, I’ve listed the major chapter headings below. The book’s Kogan-Page webpage has more of the details:

PART ONE The nature of fear and how it shapes organizations

The paradox of fear

The cultural backdrop of fear

Perspectives on fear

Cultures of fear within organizations

Feeling fear at work

Over-control and manipulation in the workplace

Organizations in crisis

PART TWO How we can harness fear to improve productivity and organizational health through promoting human values

Being human

Creating psychologically healthy workplaces

Leadership and appreciative inquiry

Developing resilience

Building trust within organizations

The power of language

Building a culture of innovation

What about the future?

 

Cornerstone OnDemand study: The impact of toxic employees

A new study conducted by the personnel management software firm Cornerstone OnDemand — “Toxic Employees in the Workplace” — provides further evidence of the harm that toxic workers can inflict on co-workers and organizations alike. For those of us specially concerned with workplace bullying, the Cornerstone study raises challenges and questions that should be considered.

Cornerstone accessed employment datasets on some 63,000 individuals and identified those who were terminated for toxic behaviors, which it defined as “misconduct, workplace violence, drug or alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, falsification of documents, fraud and other violations of company policy.” Here are the major findings, as summarized in a company news release:

  • Good employees are 54 percent more likely to quit when they work with a toxic employee, if the proportion of toxic employees on their team grows by as little as a 1:20 ratio
  • By making their co-workers significantly more likely to leave, toxic employees lead to rising replacement costs; hiring a single toxic employee onto a team of 20 workers costs approximately $12,800, whereas hiring a non-toxic employee costs an employer an average of $4,000;
  • Toxic employees have a negligible effect on the performance of their co-workers, which suggests that they have a stronger influence on stress and burnout than on day-to-day task completion.

Although the report emphasizes behaviors such as “sexual harassment, drug/alcohol use, and workplace violence” because they are “severe enough to be cause for termination,” it acknowledges that other forms of misconduct  — “for example, workplace bullying” — can “destroy the social fabric of the organization” and undermine the work performances of others.

Go here for a pdf of the full 16-page Cornerstone report.

Observations

The Cornerstone study is a welcomed addition to the body of corporate-sponsored research on toxic workplace behaviors, but it presents real limitations in its assumptions and classifications. For example:

First, the full report emphasizes the “one bad apple” theme about how a single toxic worker can cause considerable harm. This may be true, but toxic behaviors at work are more often enabled by unhealthy organizational cultures. Also, rare is the rogue outlier who can singlehandedly turn an otherwise happy, thriving workplace into a horror show, except when that individual happens to be a high ranking executive or manager.

Second, to pick up on the preceding point, the report largely blows by the question of toxic behaviors by top execs, managers, and supervisors; it implicitly places the “toxic employee” at the co-worker level. We know, however, that a lot of sexual harassment, fraud, bullying, and other misconduct is perpetrated by those in higher positions. As I’ve noted previously here, studies show that psychopathic tendencies generally increase the higher we go up the organizational chart. (See my 2013 post, “Is the ‘psychopath boss’ theme overhyped?”)

Finally, the study largely equates workplace bullying with various forms of incivility, such as behaving rudely. However, we know that on the spectrum of interpersonal mistreatment, bullying is much more harmful and destructive than incivility. Nevertheless, the study accurately reflects that bullying usually is not treated as a terminable form of misconduct. This is especially the case when practiced by organizationally protected managers and supervisors.

Recycling: Five years of February

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

February 2014: “I want to help stop workplace bullying” — “Periodically I get e-mails and voice mails from people who would like to get involved in addressing bullying at work. More often than not, they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying firsthand, and now they’d like to do something on a broader scale to prevent bullying and help others who have been targeted. Here are my thoughts on this topic . . .”

February 2013: On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations? What if notions such as supportive work environments, fair compensation structures, and organizational justice don’t cross their radar screens? What if all that matters to them are profits/revenues, avoiding liability, pleasing their boards & superiors, and getting ahead?”

February 2012: Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse — “Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws. Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better . . .”

February 2011: School bullying and workplace bullying: More alike than different? — “Beyond our families, our first encounters with others in a structured setting come via school. Is it not surprising that bullying behaviors modeled and validated in school settings reappear and evolve devolve in the workplace? More stuff to ponder here.”

February 2010: The University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings and the academic workplace — “I usually hesitate to use this blog to provide instantaneous analyses of developing news stories, but already it is clear that Friday’s terrible shootings at the University of Alabama-Huntsville will carry broader implications for academic workplaces. Three professors were killed, and two other professors and one staff member were injured during an incident that took place at a faculty meeting. In custody is Amy Bishop, an assistant professor in UAH’s biology department. Earlier that day, Bishop learned she had lost an appeal of her tenure denial. As soon as that piece of information was reported, the story behind this tragedy started to sharpen quickly.”

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