Recently, media attention has focused on the issue of bullying among players in the NFL. Although football players are trained to be aggressive and competitive, many people were surprised to learn that some players turn this aggression against their teammates.  But actually bullying in the workplace is a common phenomenon, affecting one in three individuals in a wide variety of professions.  As consultants who specialize in workplace behavior, we are finding that managers are increasingly concerned about the impact of bullying on employee retention and productivity.

The Institute on Workplace Bullying  surveyed over 4200 individuals and found one third report being bullied at work and half report witnessing workplace bullying. They define workplace bullying as, “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

1) Verbal abuse,

2) Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidation,

3) Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done.

What to do about bullying is a real challenge for managers. Typically this behavior does not rise to an unlawful level, nor does it violate workplace policies.  The bully is often a productive and valuable worker.  So managers and employees don’t think they have any options. Yet, it is clear that this type of negative workplace behavior and culture broadly affects employee morale, engagement, and productivity.

So, given that workplace bullying is a significant problem, what can be done about it?

Recently, we were brought into a bullying situation in a medium-sized software company.  The HR director and the in-house counsel believed they needed an intervention from psychologists and an outside lawyer.  They did not want to fire the employee because he was the principal architect on a critical product.  John, the bullying software engineer was a large, imposing, presence who intimidated anyone who did not agree with him.  He would berate his underlings for making simple mistakes, publicly humiliate them during staff meetings, and stand in their office with his arms folded and glaring while they tried to do their work.  John’s bullying behavior reached a tipping point when he had a “melt down” after the release of his product failed at an important trade show. It was shortly after this event, that we were called in to help.

Our coaching process is grounded in Positive Psychology, the science of understanding the strengths, skills, and values that enable individuals to thrive.  People do not change by focusing on all the ways they are failing.  People change when they have the inner strength, confidence, and skills to risk doing things differently.

Our intervention with John began with the positive. We asked him to share his story, and we listened. The act of listening fully and hearing John’s side of story without interruption, accomplished three things: It showed John that we respected his point of view, it gave us valuable insight into John’s thinking, and it calmed him down so that he could hear our input.

Our assessment showed that John struggled with both individual and organizational issues. Individually, John struggled with controlling his emotional reactivity, communicating effectively, and finding positive solutions to conflicts.  He also felt insecure and extremely stressed because he had been passed over for a promotion and was worried about his future in the company.

As is often the case with bullies, John felt he was the victim. He felt victimized by his manager who did not recommend him for a promotion, he felt victimized by his peers who excluded him from meetings, and he felt victimized by his subordinates who he believed were sabotaging his work.

We helped John identify his true skills and strengths, and found a way for him to bring them to his work situation. By approaching John in this way, and focusing on increasing his confidence and working with skills that he already had, we were able to engage him in coaching to change his bullying behavior.

You might be thinking, “Shouldn’t you be pointing out the bully’s bad behavior and tell him to stop?”  You wouldn’t be alone. Many managers, including John’s, use this approach when dealing with bullies. However, they quickly find that this strategy simply does not result in behavioral change. Positive Psychology offers an alternative approach, shifting a bully’s mindset from “I am a victim and need to intimidate to get my way” to “I have real skills and strengths that I can use to achieve my goals.”  And over time, this strengths-based consulting approach can result in significant and lasting change.

One of John’s strengths was the meticulous way he wrote software code and he cared that his team produced the same high level of work. We wanted John to maintain his high standards, but shift the way he motivated his team to accomplish them. We wanted John to learn to motivate his team by focusing on the positive. So we suggested the following strategy. Each day, John needed to say ten positive things about work to his colleagues. We had him put ten pennies in his left pants pocket. Each time John successfully made a positive work comment he was to transfer a penny to the other pocket. After about a week, several employees reported to management that John was easier to work with.  And John noticed that others on his team were producing better work than he previously realized.

We continued to work with John, providing him with more strategies to build specific skills: to control his emotional reactivity, communicate more effectively, and resolve conflict in more productive ways. These strategies improved John’s behavior and increased productivity from the team.

Bullying in the workplace is a widespread issue and many managers feel there’s nothing they can do. But our experience is that positive psychology coaching can turn this situation around.

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