Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Is your boss a bully or just demanding?


Portugal banned bosses from texting employees after work. Could it happen in the US or Australia?

Portugal makes it illegal for your boss to text you after work in 'game changer' remote work law

Is your boss a bully or just demanding?

‌Managers need to be able to manage, and some workplaces are under-resourced or have high-pressure cultures, so where do you draw the line?

Distinguishing between workplace bullying and a toxic culture can be very difficult.

Your job has been non-stop from the beginning -- long hours and a barely manageable workload.

Thanks to a lack of onboarding and constantly shifting goalposts, you keep making mistakes. This leads to tense performance management conversations with your boss, who is frustrated you can't reach the high standards expected. Despite this, there's little ongoing support to help you find your feet.

The backlog and warnings pile up. You can't sleep properly, you make more mistakes, you spend all your time with your partner complaining. Your boss starts leaving you off emails and meetings, blaming you for being insufficiently committed to the job. You begin to question whether you are capable of doing anything right. Your team-mates explain that your workplace's management philosophy is sink-or-swim. They joke that it's a good day if they haven't cried at work. You cry at work.

Such a situation could perhaps fit under the broadly agreed definition of workplace bullying, typically described as "repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety".

But this is rather broad. Managers need to be able to manage, and some workplaces are under-resourced or have high pressure cultures, so where do you draw the line? Is the problem workplace bullying, a demanding culture or bad management?

Jacquie Hutchinson

It's not possible to clearly tease out bullying from demanding cultures or bad management, argues Dr Jacquie Hutchinson, lecturer at the University of Western Australia's Business School.

'Bullying' tends to be seen in very individualised terms, which can be misleading, she argues.

It is often imagined as the work of a bad apple -- a boss who sets out to make others' lives hell -- with the internet offering articles such as '14 signs your colleague is a psychopath'.

As tempting as it is to diagnose a difficult manager, such simple explanations distract from the fact that environmental factors are the main drivers of workplace bullying, she says.

"Most of the complaints that I can see are not because there's a psychopath," explains Hutchinson, who also consults in management and human resources.

"Those types of definitions are too easy. It's too easy to say there are all these bad people."

Instead of personalising the problem, the best place to start is context. Factors such as under-resourcing and lack of job security are usually the real culprits, creating stressful situations in which interpersonal conflict is more likely to arise. Research shows the common organisational drivers of workplace bullying are:

  • Role ambiguity
  • Increased work demands
  • Lack of resources
  • Lack of training
  • Change
  • Job insecurity
  • Poor workspace
  • Lack of policies and support systems
  • Staff shortages
  • High workloads
  • Poorly designed rostering
  • Significant technological change
  • Isolated work
  • Change in work method
  • Exposure to customer violence or aggression
Recent decades have seen many of these predictors heightened for public sector workers with the advent of new public management, Hutchinson adds. Outsourcing, cutbacks, high demand for services and the increasing use of temporary contracts all contribute to what can end up becoming a toxic culture full of stressed people. But the continuing idea of bullying as an individual problem means policies tend to rely on the individual -- who may be stressed and vulnerable -- taking on much of the effort to fix the situation. This is despite the organisation often knowing there is an issue, but failing to be proactive. "No bullying is going on until I complain -- even though everybody knows what's going on, I have to make a formal complaint," argues Hutchinson. She has worked with companies that have work sites distributed across the country, even in remote locations, but nonetheless "they can tell you about the worst site in Australia".

"Generally people in that organisation know what's happening."

Listening is vital. Hutchinson noted one case of a company she worked with where a workplace survey showed that staff felt overworked, with increased demand taking a toll on everyone.

"The CEOs were really concerned about this, they wanted to do something about it," she explains.

"Their initial idea was gym memberships, yoga in the workplace, family movie passes, stuff like this. They ran it by me and I said, 'have you read what people have said? People have said "I don't have enough time to go and see my kids' play on Saturday because I've got to come into the office."' So I said to them, 'that is the problem. Apart from the fact you're not dealing with the problem, these people could get incredibly pissed off because you're not hearing.'"

The risk factors
Michelle Tuckey, professor of work and organisational psychology at the University of South Australia, agrees that bullying is primarily a function of work systems and practices.

Michelle Tuckey

"Bullying absolutely is an organisational system issue, not an interpersonal issue, even though it plays out in interactions between workers in the workplace," she tells The Mandarin.

In a project Tuckey worked on looking at 342 workplace bullying complaints lodged with SafeWork SA, 10 key risk areas emerged:

  • Clarifying and defining job roles
  • Providing training, development and personal growth
  • Appraising and rewarding job performance
  • Managing tasks and workload
  • Managing underperformance
  • Managing interpersonal and team relationships
  • Maintaining a safe work environment
  • Promoting a mentally healthy work environment
  • Administering leave and entitlements
  • Rostering, scheduling and working hours
Even in cases involving more overt behaviours such as spreading rumours or social exclusion, these work structural factors were also present, she says.

"That's why I think it can feel so hard to be on the other side of it, because it's not so easy to point to. But yet, you can experience it every day. It's the pattern of experiences when it's happening day after day, week after week, there's no single thing can you point to and say that's a problem, it's when a collection of things happen."

The cumulative effect is that bullying "undermines the sense of self you have at work and your sense of being effective at work and having a good work identity. Eventually, you just don't feel like you belong."

And it's not just a personal problem -- the Productivity Commission estimates workplace bullying costs the economy between $6 billion and $36 billion a year through absenteeism, compensation claims, health services and income support for people who leave their job prematurely.

A strong, supportive workplace culture can help prevent bullying emerging in the first place, but also gives people the licence to speak up about bad behaviour when it does arise.

"But in a toxic environment, which is also where bullying is most likely to thrive, people tend to keep quiet, and they either just go along with the bullying, or they start avoiding work and the bullying in certain ways, until it becomes too much, and then they might try and say something. But it's too little too late."

Yet some workplaces are just higher on risk than others -- staff have to deal with customer aggression, there's constant change, or increasing resources is not possible. What can managers do to make it a better place to be?

Focusing on the other risk factors that are within your control can go a long way to improving the environment, she says.

"But the important thing is to involve workers in that conversation and to do things that make sense to them and are valuable to them."

Managers themselves tend to be subject to those same pressures, and may not have much choice about passing down KPIs or other management decisions -- but how the message is communicated makes a difference.

"The thing we learn from the research is it's not just what they do, but how they do it. That can be really important," says Tuckey.

Managing underperformance is a big risk factor. When not done well there's "a very high risk" it will be seen as bullying, or actually involve bullying.

"But it can be done well if you raise things early in a timely way and you do it privately. Try to explore what's going on leading up to that performance, because it can be very complex. You put supports in place, you get new training, you work on how to help the worker, rather than letting it become so bad and then trying to tackle it."

Nonetheless, it's the broader work structures that Tuckey emphasises tend to be the primary issue.

"I don't ever want to excuse any type of bullying behaviour, but if we're going to combat it, I think it's really important to understand that often the manager is just caught up in it, they're just another layer in the system, and they might be experiencing some of the same challenges. And that's why that prevention approach needs to involve both managers and staff working together to resolve these kinds of work design issues."

Tell us: are you worried remote working could have a negative effect on your job? We would like to hear from employees about their views on their career and working from home



Working from home makes many feel ‘invisible’ Tool fatigue, brain drain and lack of communication are major obstacles for remote workers.


Want to keep tabs on your working-from-home staff? Resist the urge Companies offering remote monitoring software are booming. But spying on your employees is no way to treat people