Disarming bullies, abrasive employees (Guest commentary)

Being proactive better approach than silently accepting toxic environment
By Tamara Parris
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/06/2011

It’s a straightforward, irrefutable fact: Abrasive employees and bullies drive talent out the door and that turnover carries a hefty price tag for employers. But there are some simple steps employers can take to defuse situations and disarm these toxic employees.

However, it’s critical to understand the difference between an abrasive worker and a bully.

Abrasive employees: The behaviour of abrasive employees isn’t usually intentional but often indicates they feel threatened or are afraid to appear incompetent to an authority figure — they typically target people they believe are the core source of their risk of failure.

An abrasive individual lashes out when he needs to regain control over a situation or perceives other employees as incompetent.

Other triggers include a project or task at risk of failure. An abrasive employee fears being viewed as incapable of managing projects, workloads or teams.

Bullies: Bullies, on the other hand, are strategic and intend to harm a targeted person. They choose people they are not intimidated by but whom they believe threaten their social image. Targets are often self-confident, highly competent, accommodating, intelligent and goal-oriented.

Bullying is an attempt to publicly humiliate, discredit and undermine a target. The goal is to expose incompetence to peers and senior management, and intimidate the target out of an informal group leadership position.

Targets: Employers need to help the targets of bullies and abrasive employees identify what behaviours are triggering aggressive behaviours. The manager and target will need to monitor for the triggers and deal with the behaviours as they occur.

An action plan should also be created — targets need a strategy to remove themselves from the abusive situation and report the incident to whomever looks after workplace conflict issues.

It’s also helpful to identify the non-verbal messages of a target that suggest they will accept being treated with disrespect.

Abrasive and bullying behaviours: Abrasiveindividuals are trying to achieve a set expectation. The behaviour is triggered when there is a threat of failure. They often do not have the soft skills to manage their frustrations when issues arise. Coaching and training sessions can give them an opportunity to learn these skills, as most people are interested in learning how to strengthen communication and leadership skills.

The same tactic won’t work on bullies. Trying to train them via an information session isn’t effective because their goal is to harm someone. Professional intervention, which provides in-depth personal exploration, can provide bullies with the supports and resources to address the underlining emotional stressors stimulating the aggressive behaviors.

Managing the behaviour

But there are steps employers can take to manage these employees. When somebody is engaging in offensive behaviours, employers can:

• redirect employees back to work

• reinforce the expectation of being respectful

• speak to the offending person immediately in private

• identify disrespectful behaviour and explain why the behaviour isn’t appropriate

• inform the individual you will be monitoring behaviour

• clearly explain expectations of behaviour and the progressive discipline actions to be followed if poor behaviour persists.

On the second and third offences, be progressive in the discipline — create a written code of conduct and clearly state and outline the next steps if the code isn’t followed. Consider sending the employee for coaching to learn methods to manage his behaviour.

Managing the situation

There are a few other steps employers should take:

• During an incident, intervene and stop the behaviour — this sets boundaries of engagement.

• Keep all interventions business-related and professional.

• Focus on getting the team back to work and reinforce the value of treating each other with respect.

• In front of the group, call out the aggressor and ask him to see you in your office.

It’s important to take the lead and deal with the issue in a non-confrontational and professional manner. Waiting hours, or days, to act sends a message to staff the organization isn’t serious about dealing with the issue.

Even if management doesn’t witness the incident, it’s still critical to follow up with everyone involved — the aggressor, the target and witnesses.

Staff can also be mentored to help avoid eruptions. Teach them how to:

• identify other people’s body language or behavioural habits

• avoid a situation through visual or verbal cues

• create a safety plan with each worker so they can get out of the next incident in a professional, agreed upon manner.

By managing the behaviours of bullies and abrasive employees — and coaching targets on how to react — employers can go a long way to resolving problems. It’s a much better approach than silently accepting a toxic and hostile workplace.

Tamara Parris is the Toronto-based president of Business Accountability and a coach and trainer specializing in helping organizations deal with abrasive employees and bullies. She can be reached at (416) 548-4237, tamara@businessgenie.ca or visit www.businessaccountability.com for more information.

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