Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From Knowing About to Knowing: An Example of Leadership and the Psychological Contract at Work

Unhappy with definitions of learning and rather traditional, if not ancient, teacher-centric educational practices a colleague, Chris Kenyon, and I have been thinking about an alternate view since around 2000. If you’d like to read more about this please search the word ‘Heutagogy’ and all will be revealed in detail.

However, one of the more challenging ideas we have posited is differentiating between having knowledge about something and actual learning. We find out about something in a training program or at school, and it is stored away in memory: we might even be able to recall it in an examination. In neurological terms the knowledge (or skill) has little impact on other neurons at this time. But later we have an experience that brings that knowledge or skill into play and in this ‘Ah, Ah’ moment lots of neural connections are made that result in us seeing the world in a different way, This may be a slight change in perspective or it might be dramatic: a continuum of impact perhaps. Some of you will no doubt be thinking of brain plasticity and, yes, this idea has been borrowed from neuroscience. I’ll deal with the educational and organisational implications of this idea later, after giving a personal example.

I once wrote a paper on what happens in organisations when psychological contracts are violated. As the name implies, these are unwritten contracts that occur in the minds of people but they are no less important or binding than those signed in blood. When we arrive in a workplace, we observe how people treat each other and how managers treat their staff. Very quickly we develop expectations about how we will be treated and those expectations are usually consistent with our observations. This is a psychological contract. A breach of this contract can be devastating for employees and can cause problems ranging from disengagement to very complex workers’ compensation claims. Sadly, managers and leaders are often unaware of this important aspect of organisational culture. In short, when people perceive they are being treated differently this is quickly translated into a sense of unfairness, resentment, anxiety, and a need for justice.

It is clear from reading my paper that I knew about psychological contracts at that time. I can assume that most people would assume that my knowing about the subject constituted learning. By most current definitions of learning this is probably the right assumption. In fact, I was able to include the concept in my corporate training programs and, as a psychotherapist, treated people who had experienced a violation of their psychological contract.

However, relatively recently I really learned about psychological contracts by being a victim. The result was startling. Clearly the addition of emotion to my understanding was important. This is akin to the different between bacon and eggs: the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. I also instantaneously made vast neuronal connections that completely changed the way I see the idea of psychological contracts. It was really interesting how I was able to relate the concept to other areas of psychology, particularly leadership and management behaviour, in ways that I had not done previously.

For me this was a great example of the difference between knowing about something and real learning. The implications of this idea are wide ranging but I’ll stick to a couple of major points here. We can never be sure when learning occurs in other people: it occurs when the learner is ready not when the teacher expects. It is probable that real learning will occur in a real life situation, not in a training room. Unfortunately, we still tend to think of education and training as an event rather than as context. We also don’t know, unless we check, what impact the educational experience is having on the learner. Thus, the concept of the fixed curricula or the fixed and carefully designed training program becomes inappropriate for the individual, if not the group. The same can be said for the way in which we assess knowledge and skills, and even performance: it needs to be contextual and individualised based on the learner’s (staff member’s) experience not the teacher’s (manager’s) expectations.

If you’d like to know more or discuss these issues further please contact me at

Saturday, August 6, 2011

What does brain plasticity have to do with leadership?

There are three related issues that I’d like to briefly mention here on the way to providing some hard science that people who want to be leaders could find useful, if not compelling.

The first is that the ‘great’ debate about whether leaders are born or made is a non-event. The issue is more about what people do that make them leaders and whether they have the capacity to perform the behaviours. It is clear that some people can’t be good leaders and others can. The second issue is closely related to the first and that is that people in leadership roles do not pay much attention to the social, anthropological and psychological evidence about what great leaders do and how to get the most out of people and, ergo, organisations. Leadership is treated a bit like counselling and teaching (other than in schools), that it that anyone can do it, without any formal training, if they have the inclination. It is fascinating that we still promote people to leadership roles on the basis that they have demonstrated high levels of competence in their profession (being an engineer, academic, town planner). Lastly, for this little article at least, the leadership literature is, at best, fluffy and has probably not had much impact, other than the occasional halo effect, on what most people in leadership roles do at the coalface.

With these three issues in mind it is interesting to actually look at the science behind what people need to do in order to become good leaders. The evidence is pretty well overwhelming concerning the conditions in which people perform best at work. The tragedy is that the evidence is not accessed, oversimplified or incorrectly interpreted. I know of many organisations that have been sold psychological ‘pups’ by consultants or whose CEOs have read a trendy book on leadership at the airport that sounds good but has not evidential base. These ‘pups’ come in the form of untested theories and models that are anecdotal at best. They might consist of colourful and sexy personality testing instruments that have no reliability or validity whatsoever and are simplistic in the extreme. Medical practitioners, psychologists, dentists, nurses, physiotherapists, engineers are required to use evidence based practice. Why not people in leadership roles?

We know from many social psychological experiments that people work best in an environment where they have control over their immediate work, are informed, make a contribution to decision making, feel that what they do is worthwhile, feel that they have a positive future, feel a valued member of the team, are acknowledged for what they do, are appropriately rewarded, have interesting work, and enjoy optimal variety in their work,

We also know, again from social psychological research, what it is that good leaders do to have influence and to get the best out of people. They have empathy, listen attentively, have good interpersonal skills, make people feel valued by involving them, are optimistic and positive, involve people in decision making that affects them, and don’t micro-manage (they believe that expertise outranks rank). Good leaders consciously create the type of environment or culture described in the paragraph above.

In recent years technology has made it possible to view in living brains how experiences change our brain structure, how new neural networks grow and how relationships between the various are affected. In general it can be said that positive experiences have a growth and positive effect on our nervous system and negative experiences have the opposite.

This research has now given us some explanations of why the social factors described above seem to be important in what has come to be called employee engagement. People perform best in a situation of what I call Goldilocks Stress: it has to be just right. That is, not too much and not too little. This means the environment has to be safe and you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see that the factors described above from social research lead to a sense of safety. People are more likely to learn and adapt when they feel safe and is a central theme in the research on brain plasticity.

Research into brain plasticity also tells us that people learn and function better in enriching and challenging environments. This would explain why people tell us that they enjoy work when they feel that they are involved, have a valued role to play, work in functional team settings, have a role in decision-making and have control over what they do. Positive parenting has been shown to have very powerful cognitive and emotional advantages to children thus exposed. There is no reason to suspect that the same thing is not true for adults whose brain, we now know, develops throughout the lifespan.

Finally, we can see the role that positive interpersonal relationships are such an important aspect of leadership. Specifically, it is easy to see why people report that they most admire and are engaged with leaders who have empathy, listen and demonstrate good interpersonal skills. In short, it has a positive effect on their nervous system. Bullying behaviour, for example, has the opposite effect: it creates stress, reduces enrichment and diminishes cognitive ability.

At least there is a significant physical science to reinforce the already considerable social psychological evidence that what managers/leaders do really does matter. As does what they do not do.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When Management Decisions Get in the Way of Productive Workplaces

It constantly amazes me, despite all we know about human behaviour, that managers can still get the implementation of change completely wrong. Psychology may not be a completely exact science and there is much we don’t know yet but it is better than whim. Moreover, there are some things for which we have ample evidence. For the purposes of this article, these are that employees more fully engaged in their work and more productive if: their job satisfaction is high; the culture is essentially democratic; they are valued; intrinsic reward is the norm; they feel they have autonomy in their work; relationships are fulfilling; the work has meaning and purpose; and there is optimum variety in the work.

It has also been shown that as little as a fifth of all employees in developing countries are fully engaged at work and, hence, fully productive. More importantly, workplaces are potentially psychologically unhealthy, if not managed well, and this has considerable impact on those who work there. There are dire consequences indeed of managers not being aware of what is required to develop and maintain a positive workplace culture. And it is the management of an organisation that is fully responsible for the culture.

An experience I once had with an organisation has reminded me of the fact that managers make decisions based more on the quirks of their personality than they do on evidence from the scientific literature. For example, a high controlling, autocratic, punitive, aggressive, micro-management style will result in very specific decisions when it comes to day-to-day management and, in this case, the implementation of change.

I was asked to assist a group of people cope with change in their organisation. The program was, inappropriately, called Change Management. The brief for the job was that a change initiative had come a little unstuck and that a group needed help with dealing with the outcomes of the process. Immediately my antennae started quivering. When things go wrong in an organisation it is often decided to conduct a training program rather than look at the reasons for the problem. It is easier, or more comfortable, to implement a training solution than the higher complexity of a systems solution.

Closer inspection and on commencement of the ‘training’, the situation became clear. Had senior management carefully designed a change process designed to create enmity, negativity, angst, and dysfunction, they could not have done better than what occurred through incompetence.

The organisation had implemented a quality system and a new quality team to review the work of some 300 others. The change process, if you could call it that,: was completely ‘top down’; had no stakeholder consultation or involvement; devised a system of performance management for non-compliance; produced a complex and ambiguous manual that was intended to be a living document (like the law) on which to base decisions of compliance; created a lengthy adversarial system to manage the inevitable disputes over the decisions on non-compliance; was implemented in a culture that used email to deliver quality reviews due to the distributed nature of the organisation; and there was no attempt to make informed decisions after a lengthy trial when things clearly were not working, other than to conduct a change management program for the quality team (not the whole organisation).

In short, all the tenets of implementing successful change were ignored. This resulted, predictably, in: a classic in-group - out-group situation with all the enmity that this causes, especially against the quality team; high levels of stress for everyone; a high level of angry rather than co-operative disputation; team leaders protecting their ‘turf’ by defending non-conformance formally and informally; avoidance of personal contact between the quality team and the other employees; an adversarial culture; job insecurity; reduced job satisfaction; poor relationships; and alienation.

This could have been completely avoided had senior management bothered to read the change management literature or obtain advice from someone who did. Sadly, this was probably not likely to occur given the personality of the senior manager implementing the change.

The ‘change management’ program very quickly became a strategic planning exercise, based on the needs of the quality team, and was extremely successful. Unfortunately, we needed to have the whole organisation in the room and conduct a search conference, or similar process. Perhaps then we might have made a difference. As it stands this organisation will fail to function at an optimum level for a very long time. Worse it will remain an unhealthy workplace with all the sequelae that it entails. And all due to management by personality.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

When a Failure of Leadership Morphs into a Training Solution

You have almost certainly heard the joke about the drunk Irishman scrambling about on his all fours in the middle of the night under a streetlight. A policeman happens by and asks what the drunk is doing and receives the reply that he is looking for his car keys. The policeman helps for a while but the keys are nowhere to be found. The policeman asks the drunk where he may have seen them last and the drunk points vaguely into the pitch black darkness of the park over the road and says, ‘Somewhere over there.’ In exasperation the poor member of the constabulary asks why on earth they are wasting their time looking in this spot. The drunk replies, ‘ Don’t be stupid officer, this is where the light is.’

So, it is with organisations that frequently seek solutions to problems in completely the wrong places. The most common of these is when the CEO or senior manager decides that a problem requires a training solution when in fact the place to look is with leadership. Training can be in the form of providing skills, team building, and even running leadership training for the middle managers, who are seen as the potential weak link in the chain. This training can be elaborate and quite expensive.

However, it is invariably ineffective. The keys will not be found because they are in a different place altogether. Nonetheless, senior management is able to tick the box and do a Pontius Pilate when things do not work out as expected and the problem persists. Employees can be such ungrateful wretches when they don’t embrace the valuable opportunities that have been provided!

There are many examples of this but I’ll choose something reasonably benign to illustrate. Take the case of Stress Management programs. Clearly staff are stressed to the maximum and cracks are starting to show in the organisation that can no longer be avoided. So, it is decided to hire a trainer and run some single or perhaps two-day programs on how to manage stress (or whatever organisational ailment has been identified).

As every consultant and trainer knows, the training is next to worthless and will not produce any long-lasting behaviour change at all. There will be a halo effect of a couple of weeks similar to that obtained from listening to Tony Robbins or Billy Graham but any change wears off and things go back to normal. This is particularly true if the situation to which the person goes back to does not change. Conversions do happen to a small number but they are often highly contextual and rely in other substantial changes occurring at the same time: this would involve becoming a disciple perhaps. Training does not often create these sorts of transformations.

The results, however, are satisfactory to the main players. The consultant becomes rich and the manager can tick the box, wash the hands and move on with a satisfied smirk.

The real solution for this problem, and many others for that matter, is a need for good leadership. Problems are often systems based rather than a lack of skill on the part of employees. The stress problem is often about the workplace and a need to redesign work: to do things in a different way. But CEOs are reluctant to go down this path and display some real leadership by tackling the hard stuff.: the more complex. Instead they go for the simple, but ineffective, solution. Naturally enough I guess given human nature but a failure of leadership nonetheless.

There are many other examples and some have to do with a rather less obvious leadership failure. Often I have been asked to mediate with either individuals or even whole teams who are in conflict or ‘being difficult’. In many cases the situation has come about because of a lack of action on the part of managers: mostly action was required early, when the problem is developing., but does not occur for a host or reasons.

Good leadership requires time, commitment to people and work. It means being involved with employees and relationship building. Then, when things start to go wrong there is early identification and subsequent action to set things right. This demands participation by staff and a certain democratic state of mind on the part of the manager, which is also not easy to procure. All of this needs skill and a willingness that goes beyond a focus on technical issues in the manufacture of whatever widgets the organisation produces.

I was recently involved with an organisation in which the pas de deux between consultant and manager was different. The initial problem was painted as a team that were ‘playing up’ and acting unsafely in what was an inherently dangerous workplace. When the issue was analysed in consultation with management, and in more detail, it was obvious that the ‘training solution’ of safety training that had been the initial brief was barking up the wrong tree. The training program we had designed was quickly dispatched to the scrap heap. Instead we undertook a modified search conference, which is a democratic and highly participative process that tackles workplace problems front on-with the troops. The result was that we unearthed a whole bunch of systemic problems that were creating the problem, at least in part, and which management committed to address. And the team committed to changing their behaviour and sticking to safety processes and procedures. At the same time, managers also committed to taking a more proactive role in pursuing safety goals. In effect, they were prepared to show leadership. A day of normal training would have been a dance of death.

So, the more enlightened consultant and manager can go beyond the ritualistic dance of the ‘training solution’. Instead they recognise that there may be a need to provide training but it needs to be accompanied by work redesign perhaps or system changes. Maybe it requires leading from the front and making sure that desired changes do in fact occur. This means the leader learning some psychological techniques for facilitating behavioural change in others. The manager may recognise that individual coaching involving self and employees will be more likely to address problems than running a workshop in a fancy location with a nice lunch. Sadly, the latter ticks the box in so many ways for the main players.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Refugee Crisis in the Camps: Now Who Could Have Predicted That?

The media treat it as something of a surprise that the ungrateful inmates of our refugee camps are rioting and committing suicide. But it does make for great headlines and, let’s face it, that’s mainstream journalism these days: the ‘gotcha’ rather than real investigation. Well, it is no surprise to psychologists who, had government taken the time to seek some good advice, could have easily predicted these events. In fact, if a research psychologist had wanted to design an experiment confirming the negative impact of incarcerating people, they could have done no better than the politicians and bureaucrats with the fiasco they have invented. The experiment has it all: desperate people; close confinement; razor wire; remote locations; removal of dignity; an extended but variable process that engenders hopelessness; an unnatural existence; and overcrowding.

It has been long known in psychology that even relatively innocuous forms of incarceration cause psychological problems: an abnormal situation creates abnormal behaviour in and of itself. We know that guards become abusive towards inmates when they are in this unique position of power. The abuse of the powerless is not restricted to psychopaths or other similarly inadequate personalities. Mr and Mrs Average are quite capable of abnormal cruelty when given the opportunity. We see this in wartime, concentration camps, prisons and the now defunct (thankfully) psychiatric hospitals of the first half of the twentieth-century.

Any first year psychology student knows that you cannot expect people to behave normally when they are placed in abnormal situations. And we could expect people to riot when they are placed in a threatening situation. We can expect people to kill themselves or develop psychoses when their disbelief turns to despair turns to hopelessness. We can expect to see children rapidly whither on the vine when normality is stripped from them: they have few defences to protect themselves.

Successive Australian governments have failed the compassion test, as have we, the Australian people for not urging a humanitarian approach to this problem. This does not mean allowing illegal entry to our country. It does not mean opening our doors. But it does mean having a process for dealing with the problem that is in keeping with the mores of a twenty-first century civil society rather than those of the dark ages: a society that bases its decisions on evidence rather than false and convenient belief. I wonder if we are ready yet and is there a politician out there that is prepared to rise above the sorcery that is popularism?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Get Back in the Box: Nurse Ratched is Alive and Well

In the famous book and movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched thoroughly runs the roost. From a Jungian archetype perspective Nurse Ratched represents the dominating and emasculating mother. Her main modus operandi is to manipulate the male patients into believing that their welfare is her primary concern and that everything she does is for their benefit. With this backdrop of apparently caring intention, she holds tightly onto control in the guise of benefactor and protector from the evils of the world. The most mischievous component of her behaviour, however, is to build up expectations for rewards in the form of activities, treats or even positive attention from her as a projection of their mother, and then shatter them at the last moment. It is consummate controlling and deeply obsessive behaviour. When McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in the movie) challenges Nurse Ratched by emancipating the patients and shows signs of winning the battle for control, he is lobotomised.

Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched character is based in reality. I actually saw this archetype in the real world when working in a psychiatric hospital in Western Australia in the early 1970s. In my case Nurse Ratched was a male. So, what follows is equally applicable to both sexes but I refer to Nurse Ratched as female throughout to be consistent with the fictional character and, hopefully, not for any other unconscious desire.

Some recent research I have conducted with colleagues suggests that the Nurse Ratched archetype is alive and well in organisations other than psychiatric institutions. It appears in various configurations and degrees but has the same end game, which is to control the inmates: to keep them in their box. This reinforces Nurse Ratched’s sense of power, strengthens the mask that hides a deep-seated insecurity, a poorly developed sense of self and a sense that all is not well with herself, and, hence by projection, the world. Nurse Ratched has developed a set of behaviours that serve to protect her from seeing her true self and the maintain the illusion that others can’t see it either.

Nurse Ratched is a micromanager. Nothing is left to the deliberations of others. Of course there are committees, although one might find precious few of them and they are functionally impotent. This impotence is openly reinforced by Nurse Ratched who frequently overwrites their decisions using an unwritten but thoroughly understood power of veto. All decisions no matter how minute and trivial such as office allocation and travel claims are made by this manager: nothing is left to chance.

The archetype is surrounded by supplicants who have been handpicked to ensure that they do not challenge in any real way. Most importantly they all toe the party line. Dissidents are seen as not being loyal and either micromanaged or managed out. Members of the management group are found on most committees in the organisation. Committee membership has less to do with expertise and more to do with ensuring control. Loyalty is much more important than ability to be appointed as an acolyte. Even the most appalling manager and bully will be supported as long as they are loyal, get the job done and make Nurse Ratched look good.

Nurse Ratched makes sure that appointments are carefully managed. Selection panels are small and consist of herself, a couple of acolytes and a rep from HR. It is important not to have someone on the committee with expertise in the area of the appointment. Lower levels of staff are never involved in the selection process. It is not unusual for Nurse Ratched to veto an appointment and tap someone on the shoulder either within or from outside the organisation. Nepotism is so commonplace that it is taken to be normal. It is one of the rare instances where the manager does not employ a clone of self. There is room for only one Nurse Ratched in an organisation.

Information flow is carefully managed by our archetype. Most critical information is held by the management group and does not filter down: there is a hard communication barrier between senior management and the inmates. The acolytes realise that their survival depends on making sure that only selected information is sent upwards. Meanwhile Nurse Ratched is fed a diet of misinformation from employees dotted around the organisation that are the result of the nepotistic and political appointment processes. There is nothing like pillow talk to sink an upstart’s reputation.

Nurse Ratched likes to make sure the inmates are busy: extremely busy. Staff levels are kept to a minimum, performance expectations are high and there is little room for diversion from the key tasks of the business. This archetype depends on looking good in front of the board or shareholders and this is achieved by ensuring positive business outcomes no matter what the cost to people or organisational climate. There is a Calvinesque austerity and lack of celebrations of success are rare and token. Nurse Ratched depends on an efficient and well-run ward. In the movie McMurphy’s joie de vive is a major irritant and is finally silenced by reducing him to a vegetable. With such a threat people become malleable.

The result of this archetype’s behaviour is an adversarial, ‘us and them’ culture. The ‘management team’ interpret any discontent as being due to the implicit failing of the inmates and not the result of dysfunctional leadership and a toxic culture. The inmates should be grateful: let them eat cake.

Widespread cynicism pervades the organisation underpinned by powerlessness. Some inmates, like the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, find a way to escape-he throws a water cooler through the window and runs away. In less potent expressions of their disappointment, the more imaginative and stronger personalities soon see the organisation for what it is and fly the coop. There are others who don’t quite understand the culture and innocently push back. But they are soon put in their box one way or another by being micromanaged to death, assigned meaningless tasks, and/or subtly bullied. Many are trapped due to circumstances and suffer the same pathology as Seligman’s dogs, learned helplessness that manifests itself as depressive behaviour. Denial and rationalisation of their situation help maintain a tolerable level of mental health in many.

People being people, they will in even the most adversarial environment find a way to let their creative juices flow and mostly find satisfaction in doing well what they often love doing. This is tolerated as long as the widgets continue to be churned out and there is not too much dysfunction. In fact Nurse Ratched rewards this behaviour with acknowledgement, which is gratefully received from inmates starved of recognition and positive reinforcement. But beware if the light shines too bright or the irrelevance of the activity to Nurse Ratched’s agenda is brought to her attention, the tit-bits are quickly withdrawn. After all, it is for the inmates’ own good.

This is the most toxic aspect of the culture that Nurse Ratched presides over and is the hallmark of the ultimate bully: the manipulation of the human need for recognition. The bully keeps the other in a state of constant desire for acknowledgement by maintaining a high level of disappointment, an air of disapproval. The victim’s diminishing self-esteem cries out for recognition and is occasionally, momentarily rewarded. The rush of pleasure increases desire for more and the person works even harder even as the tsunami of disappointment washes them away yet again.

Such is the dark side of organisations.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Workplace Bullying: Blowing the Whistle on Conspiracies of Silence

There is a conspiracy of silence when it comes to workplace bullying. In the many thousands of words recently written about bullying at work in the local press the conspiracy has been maintained.

A conspiracy of silence occurs when everyone knows that bad behaviour is occurring but there is a tacit decision not to talk about it and certainly not to do anything. It was first used to describe incest in families and, more recently, other forms of abuse. People don’t do anything because they don’t want to rock the boat, to avoid conflict, and because it is just too hard. Sadly, by not speaking up or doing anything the observers validate the perpetrator and invalidate the victim.

As I have often seen in clinical practice, the effect of these conspiracies on the victims is monstrous. The victim feels as if he or she is somehow at fault, they are confused, and feel alone and unsupported. Most importantly they come to feel powerless and it is this that results in anxiety and depression, the most common effects of being bullied.

In all that is written about bullying at work there are two major conspiracies of silence that result in enormous pain and suffering for victims. It also seems that workmates who see the bullying can also be badly affected resulting in significant symptoms on their part too.

The first gaping silence is that senior managers in organisations prefer not to do anything about bullies. This conspiracy of silence occurs despite the fact that bullying is against the law and CEOs and boards of directors are in fact culpable by not acting. It is interesting to watch an organisation move a victim of bullying to another branch or even another job, and leave the bully in place: even after admitting openly that the bullying has occurred. Sometimes, it is easier to call a case of bullying a personality conflict and call in a mediator. The damage these behaviours do to the victim is enormous.

It’s also common to blame the victim. This is easy because the bullied worker has repeatedly made complaints, as instructed by the legislation and the bullying literature that is laying on the coffee table in the CEO’s waiting area. The victim, who has become increasingly distressed over time, can be simplistically labelled as unstable or over-sensitive: a trouble maker. Let’s not forget too that bullies often pick on already vulnerable people who might have a reputation already for being oversensitive.

There have been some notorious bullies in organisations in and around Lismore that have been allowed to get away with bullying behaviour time and time again: I have seen many of their victims at the clinic. Many of these bullies get promoted. There are also large numbers of senior managers that know that their staff are being bullied but do nothing. Under the legislation they are just as culpable as the bully and their organisation can be fined many thousands of dollars. But they still engage in the conspiracy and more often than not put the fox in charge of the chook shed.

The preferred personality profile of a successful manager (or one on the way up) appears to be someone who is aggressive, dominant, single minded, achievement-oriented, and task focused. Throw in a little pinch of narcissism, low empathy for others and an unsatisfied need for power and this is a nasty recipe for bullying behaviour. These are not easy people to deal with which makes it so much easier to turn the blind eye. Bullies often appear so good at their job and they create the right relationships with the right people to protect themselves.

And it happens every day in organisations in which we all work. In a recent case a colleague of mine was told by the human resource manager of her organisation that it would be better to let a case of bullying drop because it was against a very senior manager. The reason being that the consequences would not be worth it in the end.
The other conspiracy involves an unholy alliance between the organisation and the insurance company. Despite the pretty advertisements insurance companies want to avoid liability. To do this they will find any excuse to blame the victim rather than make the workplace deal with the problem. Everyone’s a winner: the insurance company doesn’t have to pay out and the organisation’s premiums are protected.

The main way this is done is to find a pre-existing condition in the victim such as a history of previous abuse, anxiety, depression, previous bullying or any other negative behaviour. This is then used as a means of blaming the victim. This is easy to do by running a unbalanced investigation and being highly selective with ‘the evidence’. For someone who has genuinely been bullied at work this outcome is extremely damaging.

It is time for the conspiracies of silence to be broken. Those with the power to act need to make the hard decision and deal with the perpetrator rather than leaving it up to the victim who is already disempowered.