A psychologist has called for organisations to protect managers against workplace harassment after a study revealed that nearly a quarter of Australian bosses are the targets of "upwards" bullying.
Workplace bullying is generally thought of as being directed downwards (from a supervisor to an employee, for instance), or "horizontally" (between co-workers), says Griffith University's Dr Sara Branch.
But employers, she says, must understand that bullying can occur at every level of an organisation.
"Although managers clearly have formal authority, they can also be targets of bullying and need just as much support as other staff," she says.
"Organisations must take all forms of bullying seriously, as it is destructive and can have a devastating effect on people's careers."
Disgruntled by change
Based on interviews with 24 senior, middle and supervisory managers and a survey of nearly 140 others, Branch found that the principal trigger for upwards bullying is workplace change.
"If an employee is disgruntled by change - such as new working conditions, management, or processes - they may blame their manager and respond by bullying them," she says.
Upwards bullying, she says, can range from less obvious forms - such as feeding gossip, skipping meetings, intentionally missing deadlines and disregarding input - to more aggressive behaviours, such as yelling and verbal threats.
Managers, in turn, might suffer from stress and anxiety and lose confidence in their abilities as leaders, she says, which ultimately impacts the bottom line.
What employers must do
Branch notes that many managers are reluctant to report upwards bullying for fear of not being taken seriously, or because they feel that they're expected to deal with the problem themselves.
But managers should be encouraged to report harassment and to discuss the issue openly, she says.
Employers, Branch says, must:
• implement a grievance management process that managers and staff can trust;
• provide managers and supervisors with visual support when implementing change, so that the change appears legitimate and warranted in the eyes of employees; and
• build better relationships with staff, breaking down the "us versus them" mentality.
When planning change, employers should also carefully consider the impact this will have on individual staff, Branch says.
While upwards bullying is inappropriate, she says, negative reactions are to be expected if a change is insensitively implemented and employees are adversely affected.
From negative to constructive conflict
Resolution Centre mediator Catherine Gillespie says that many employees - when left to handle conflict "instinctively" - respond to challenges from managers defensively.
What should be a healthy debate over business goals, for instance, she says, can degenerate into disputes centred on asserting power and determining who's right and wrong.
Gillespie notes that leadership structures aren't as rigid as they used to be and managers have to earn respect. Now, more so than ever, individuals feel that their views carry weight and can be reluctant to let things go.
Conflict can stymie production, she says, through the time that is wasted sorting out issues and the destabilising effect it has on a team.
But not all conflict is negative, Gillespie says.
When employees are trained "to handle conflict constructively", she says, they become aware that "being challenged" provides an opportunity for growth, finding solutions and reducing stress.
However, when a negative conflict arises, she says, employees and managers should:
• use assertive language, as opposed to passive or aggressive language, and focus on the issue instead of personal factors;
• keep emotions in check, by taking a deep breath, talking in a calm voice, or, if familiar with the other party, matching their aggressive tone and "gradually talking them down";
• ask questions with the intention of learning, as opposed to laying blame, and give the other party the opportunity to explain their point of view; and
• address the issue as soon as it arises.
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