When is workplace conflict actually bullying?

5 things businesses can and should be doing to eliminate workplace bullying

Bullying will stop
Bullying will stop only when the leaders stop tolerating it

I think the biggest thing business owners need to look out for is that what looks like a conflict may actually be harassment or bullying.

I teach how to eliminate abusive behavior using operant conditioning (which is behavioral psychology). I’m the author of The Bully Vaccine and teach an online course on workplace bullying for managers. If you want to learn more about this – check out my 6 hour online course – Workplace Bullying for HR professionals.

In the meantime, here are 5 things business should do to eliminate harassment in the workplace.

1) It’s important that they make a distinction between the reasons for the behavior and the behavior itself. There are better ways to express disagreement. If their behavior crossed the line – that’s what needs to be dealt with.

2) Document everything. If it turns out that one person in the conflict is being victimized by the other, you won’t be able to see that without ongoing documentation. Don’t treat these conflicts as one off events. They are part of a continuum of behavior and you have to treat it as such. Additionally, you will need this documentation to prove you were looking into the problem and taking corrective action if you are hit with a lawsuit.

3) Be on the lookout for retaliatory behavior and be prepared for it before it happens. Bullying and aggressive behavior is considered adaptive. People do it because it works and helps them get their way. When they are caught being “too” aggressive, they will often use aggression to get their accuser to back off – because that’s what always worked in the past. There is a name for this pattern of behavior – it’s called an extinction burst and it’s 100% predictable. It’s going to happen. So, assume it’s going to happen and have a process in place to deal with it when (not if) it does.

4) Put in the time necessary – you can’t outsource or assume that these “conflicts” will resolve themselves with time. In order to teach your employees how to handle conflicts respectfully, you have to first untrain the inappropriate behavior they have been engaging in. This takes time and you have to be 100% consistent in how you respond. If you don’t, you set up variable reinforcement schedules and that makes things worse and strengthens the behavior you don’t want. The effort put in on the front end is paid off in spades as employees adapt and eliminate the conflict behavior that is causing so many problems.

5) Be prepared for the blowout. People don’t give up bad behaviors easily. They will fight you on it. But if you want to get past this sort of nonsense so everyone can focus on work – you don’t have a choice. You either do what it takes and ride the blow out out, or you give in and live with a heightened level of annoyance and aggravation and employee abuse.

Again, this is all predictable. Employers owe it to themselves to learn what it really takes to solve these sorts of problems so that they stop putting bandaids on the problem and start doing the hard work of solving them.


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