Workplace Bully or Disgruntled Employee?

Workplace Bully or Disgruntled Employee?

A July 2012 Harvard Business Review (HBR) Blog covered a very interesting issue: how does an organization bring disgruntled employees back into the team so as to reinvigorate their productivity and end their negative impact on the workplace?

Author Joseph Folkman sited his recent research into the issue, and found that when bosses play favorites, they create disgruntled workers but also that the disgruntled workers play a role in their own alienation.

Workplace Bully Caused by Alienation? Or Vice Versa?

I found this article interesting because, in my role as Conflict Consultant, I am looking at the abrasive person in the workplace and wondering about two distinct possibilities: are they acting out because they feel alienated by a boss playing favorites? Or is the boss playing favorites because of their initial bullying type behaviors?

Once I look at the department with the abrasive person, I can determine what is happening. Typically there is evidence of both—alienation caused by a boss who plays favorites and alienation caused by an employee who is abrasive and may be bullying others.

What is a boss to do? Folkman recommends six steps to end favoritism and bring the disgruntled employee into alignment with the group. These steps are as follows:

  • Encourage me more. When we asked the unhappy 6% to name the skill they thought was most important for their boss to demonstrate, the top response was “Inspire and motivate others.” Too often, managers take a negative tone with disgruntled employees. Expecting that efforts to motivate will be ignored, none are proffered, and the expectations become self-fulfilling. But our data suggest managers should take the opposite view: Work harder to inspire this group. Keep the conversation positive. Expect the best, not the worst.
  • Trust me more. It’s probably not surprising that both parties — unhappy employee and boss alike — distrust each other. The key to restoring trust is to operate with the belief that the other party can change. Here we’d suggest the manager make the first move by making the effort to understand the employee’s problems. Then, as both parties work on their relationship, they must strive for consistency —that is, the manager must strive to treat all employees equitably, and both parties must strive to reliably do what they say they will do. Over time, trust will grow.
  • Take an interest in my development. If a person works hard and gets a pay check he has a job. But if a person works hard, gets a pay check, and learns a new skill, she has a career. Career development should not be focused only on the high-potentials. As counterintuitive as it may seem, don’t leave the underachievers out when distributing stretch assignments.
  • Keep me in the loop. Communication is fundamentally a management function, so this responsibility rests squarely with the managers. Great communicators do three things well. First, they share information and keep everyone well informed. Second, they ask good questions, inviting the opinions and views from others — all others. Third, they listen. And not just to the people they like.
  • Be more honest with me. People want to know how they’re really doing on the job — and the one’s not in favor perhaps even more than the one’s feeling the warm glow of approval. They want to know why they’re falling short. They want a chance to improve. Too often, though, the bottom 6% felt their bosses were not giving honest feedback, glossing over problems with comments like “You’re coming along fine,” when clearly they were not. What’s more, many reported promises being made (“if you finish this project on time then…”) that were not kept. Honesty is the bedrock of good relationships.
  • Connect with me more. Anything managers can to do improve their relationship with the disgruntled employees will have a significant positive influence. Here’s where favoritism takes on its most concrete form: managers go to lunch more with people they like, our data show; they talk with them more socially (about children, sports, etc); they know them more personally. This is natural, surely, but so are the feelings of exclusion it creates among the less favored. A small effort by managers to spread their attention around more broadly can go a long way here.

Workplace Bullying Behavior Requires Special Attention

In addition to these suggestions, where there is evidence of abrasive and bullying behavior, the burden of handling that behavior is still on the manager. Here are some suggestions for dealing with the problem.

  • Set behavior standards. Abrasive and bullying behavior hurts the bottom line, destroys teams, and weakens the credibility of the manager.  Be clear that such behavior is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.
  • Enforce those behavior standards. Do not hesitate to document unacceptable behavior and use progressive discipline.
  • Be patient. Changing abrasive and bullying type behaviors takes time. Expect incremental improvements over time with some slippage to aggression when the pressure increases (around deadlines, team meetings).
  • Be consistent. Challenge abrasive behavior when it happens. Don’t wait or make excuses for the aggressor. He or she needs to know you mean it and you will follow the disciplinary path.
  • Offer help. People who are abrasive or bullying others need specific guidance and tools for changing their behavior. Acknowledge their challenges and find a coach who is qualified to help change their behavior to something closer to the expectations you have articulated.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years.  My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.  You can contact me here.

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