Managing the Fine Line Between Performance Management and Bullying

A Leadership culture perspective

According to the Workplace Bullying Project team from Griffith University, the financial cost of bullying to business is between $6 and $13 billion per year. It also impacts productivity, absenteeism, staff turnover and morale. As of 1st January 2014, Fair Work Commission will have new jurisdiction to deal with claims of bullying in the workplace.

At Cape Group’s OD Forum on this topic on 17th December, the focus was what causes higher levels of workplace bullying in some organisationa or industries compared to others. We asked participants their views on why “performance management” could often give rise to claims of bullying. While a number said it was difficult to put a solid line in the sand, there was agreement that more claims of bullying occurred when:

  • Communication style was too direct and abrupt
  • Performance feedback was inconsistent or delayed
  • Culture change was occurring and staff and management were confused on what was trying to be achieved
  • Skills and capability of the manager to give feedback

While there was discussion on the role and capability of an individual’s manager, Louise Parks from the Voice Project provided some alternate possibilities from the insights they’ve gained through their data.

In looking at engagement and 360 surveys benchmark data from more than 185,000 employees from over 2,700 organisations, they found that the quality of senior leadership had a significant impact in the levels of workplace bullying. They propose that targeting training at mid-level managers is unlikely to change any issues with workplace bullying. More valuable is raising the senior leaders and executives awareness of the impact of their behaviour on the organisation as a whole from an organisation culture perspective.

Many senior leaders believe they are too distant from non-direct reporting staff to be making an impact. Yet, based on the benchmark data gathered by the Voice Project, the best approach to prevent or solve bullying it to appraise senior leaders for their ability to recognise, develop and involve all staff. Bullying is often less about the presence of bullying behaviours and more about the absence of positive behaviours.

Seeking consensus on a clear definition of workplace bullying, the participants agreed that this could be very subjective, even when considering the definition provided by the Fair Work Commission. For example, how to define specifically what “repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the <worker/s>” was open to interpretation, that is:

  • is “repeatedly” twice or more than that?
  • what is consider to be “unreasonably”?

To address this, it was advisable to take a collaborative approach within your organisation to defining appropriate behaviour and what is expected.

It is interesting to note that when a bullying claim is made, it is very common for a counter claim to be made by the person being accused, whether that be back to the claimant or to the organisation as a whole. There is growing evidence that bullying is often only symptomatic of a much more deep rooted cultural issue. There is a need for organisations to review claims to understand the true cause. There are a range of potential causes at different levels that could provide answers to where claims of workplace bullying stem from:

  • Organisation: an unhealthy or changing culture
  • Leadership: a more command and control type of leadership style within an organisation in an era where staff expect collaboration and inclusion
  • Individual: a reaction to not coping or feeling threated (either within the organisation or personally) – this could be by the individual making the claim or the person who is being accused

There are numerous examples of how a positive corporate culture and good engagement results in greater productivity. Staff enjoy their work environment and this positively impacts their performance. Performance feedback is given regularly and effectively. As evidenced by the research by Voice Project, the most effective way to prevent claims of bullying is to have the executives have strong capability to recognise, develop and involve staff. Preventing bullying is best achieved through regular two way conversations.

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