Getting started – ideas for discussion
The following is a set of propositions and questions to structure an extended conversation. A conversation characterized by reflexivity1To be reflexive is to be willing to ‘question our own habitual attitudes, theories-in-use, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions…’ (Bolton & Delderfield, 2018, p.9) to notice how these shape the world we see and how we take up our role in it. It is about looking at the ground we stand on, to notice what we notice and think about what we might not see or hear because of who we have become through training; education; gender; culture etc. It is a state of vigilance which also supports action. <br>Bolton, G. and Delderfield, R. (2018) Reflective practice. Writing and professional development. 5th edn. London, Sage. – a keen interest in why people think like they do, and the impact of this thinking on what is seen as important and what can be ignored. The aim is to build sufficient agreement (or a willing agnosticism) to ’go public’ and invite people to talk about their lived experience of work (Stage 2).
Given the nature of the work and its requirement to be reflexive, it may be useful to have a facilitator. Such a person/role can take much of the responsibility for creating a safe enough place to do the relational and cognitive work required to lead this sort of project well (LINK – when you use an external person).
This second conversation is about This conversation is working through to establish a baseline understanding in the senior team, that will evolve. It is a limbering up, to check that relationships between the senior leadership are aligned to the work of investigating and learning as you go. An alignment that eschews off the shelf responses or privileging getting on at the cost of suppressing difference.
Propositions and questions
1. Don’t people just need to toughen up?
The first question to tackle is do these behaviours warrant the attention of senior leaders? Bullying and incivility are contested behaviours. You feeling bullied is me being clear and direct. It is worth remembering that senior people may have been subject to the behaviours under scrutiny and expressed them under pressure. Everyone tends to have a view, constituting a reservoir of unexpressed and untested assumptions to be made about why these behaviours occur and how their effects can be minimized. This proximity to the behaviours under investigations is the unique challenge for the senior team. How to be objective and involved.
An important part of the conversation is to talk about the research on the cognitive and emotional consequences of these behaviours; how they affect different groups; and their impact on the efficiency of the business (see my notes on ‘How we talk matters’ here). This can help the group surface the implicit thinking and experiences, that will inevitably shape how the group takes up its role in the project. The argument here is the more explicit the group can be about its thinking and its part in what is going on, the more likely the approach will engage people.
2. How do we face the ethical challenge of the work?
A project to inquire into bullying and incivility is to ask everyone to examine their behaviour. To have authority, the leadership must demonstrate its willingness to examine its behaviour. A failure to be seen to use positional power to insist others do, what the senior people are unwilling or unable to do. People will be alert to any gap between espoused (we need to reduce the use of these behaviours) and in use values (as long as we do not have to change how to ask people to do things).
This requirement to lead a process of self-examination process is not without anxiety for a senior team. The usual separation between investigator and investigated is blurred in this work. The leadership cannot distance itself from the behaviours under scrutiny. To do so would be to fail to confront the ethical challenge that is at the core of this project. This risk suggests the following needs serious consideration.
- How do we lead and acknowledge our part in creating the conditions for bullying and incivility?
- How do we explain our part and keep it safe enough for people to take up the invitation to talk and think with us?
- How do we disrupt our ways of talking and keep business as usual going?
3. Doing what we have done before will not work
This project begins in uncertainty because formulaic interventions do not work. Bullying is resistant to calls to be nice, even if they are embedded in policies and procedures. People know they should be nice. Most people want to be kind.
Key to success is co-creating new ways of understanding of the causation of these behaviours. This means asking people about the experience and feel about their work. The leadership will need to think how to facilitate these conversations; mindful of the gap between what the senior leaders imagine people do and experience; what they tell them to do; and what they choose to tell us. People will always disclose less than they know. If this is the case, the senior team need to think about how to gather this data.
4. Asking people means talking about ‘cases’
Asking people to talk about their lived and felt experience will trigger uncertainty. People will assume the leadership is in a listening mode and anxious about what will happen if they do talk openly about specific events. Some people will have a memory of speaking their mind and being told to shut up.
Discussion about bullying and incivility is usually consigned to the informal system of the organization or part of the confidential formality of an HR process. The senor team is leading an intervention to make public what is usually kept private. This privacy is important and problematic if you want to try and understand the wider purpose of bullying and incivility.
The focus on individual events or ‘cases’ cannot be avoided. It is not without risk and can be justified if the purpose is to ‘lift’ explanations out of the personal to the systemic. That said, the risks need managing.
To be invited to be specific about something traumatic is to risk a vivid reminder of it. There is the risk that the listener will feel overwhelmed; forced into action as people describe behaviours, language, impact and name people. This can lead to ‘calling in HR’ or other forms of rescuing. This is inevitable when faced with someone distressed. However, rescuing people will curtail the expression and understanding of the distress. What sounds kind, can hide a wish to silence the search for the wider determinants of bullying and incivility. As a result, people are left in the role of victim.
To do this suggests the listener is no longer listening. While the wish to do something is understandable, the possibility this is ‘flight into action’ should be considered. Management based on a flight from listening to painful stories can mean the story is never fully told or heard. The person speaking is left as a victim, rather than someone who has had an awful time and who also wants to contribute to a shared understanding of why and what will improve things (see Blackwell, 1997)2Blackwell, D. (1997) Holding, Containing and Bearing Witness: The Problem of Helpfulness in Encounters with Torture Survivors. Journal of Social Work Practice, 11(2), pp. 81-89..
Talking about cases opens up a conversation about other roles
If one assumes that being a victim or target of bullying is not fixed, the same can be argued about the roles of perpetrator and bystander. These are two other roles in the drama. The leadership should be curious to understand from ‘cases,’ how people come to shout and swear and to sit in silence, suppressing their voice.
5. How do we keep listening when we may hate what we hear?
If people are asked to talk about their lived experience, they will assume that the person asking is in listening mode. People will know that this offer is not without risk. Some will assume that what they say will be heard as a criticism of the leadership and that this will have real and imagined consequences in the current culture.
Telling people not to worry will be insufficient reassurance. The senior leadership will need to acknowledge that some of what people will say will be uncomfortable to hear. Some of it will be unfair and some of it will be true. The leadership task is to sit and listen and not intrude with explanations and justifications. To hold open a space in which people are safe enough to express themselves and not feel that such expression will be consigned to the ‘emotive box’ (I always knew you were not resilient enough for the role), but considered as data3Blackwell, D. (1997) Holding, containing, and bearing witness: The problem of helpfulness in encounters with torture survivors. Journal of Social Work Practice, 11(2) pp.81-89.. Data that is required to further the project into the underlying drivers of bullying and incivility.
6. Asking people means thinking about who gets silenced and why
A purpose of bullying is to silence people and to get them to silence themselves. When this takes place, in the context of work as complex as health or social care, it is not just the individual who is silenced. A system issue is silenced. It is as if the only way to get the work done is to ignore what others think should be considered. Choices need to be made, and choices made by being told to shut the **** up need to be met with curiosity. Curiosity about who is doing the enforcing; who is silenced; who is by standing; and why now.
Investigating bullying and incivility as a systemic symptom will surface what is ignored to get things done around here. The forcing to the service of who and what has been routinely ignored will be met with mixed feelings and will need managing. That is why treating the behaviours that enforce this ‘logic’ cannot be consigned to an HR process. To do so is to deal with the individuals and not the systemic issue being ignored.
The senior team knows choices must be made and that it has implicitly authorized and rewarded key people managers for their ability to keep things simple. To suppress what is heard as dissent from the agreed way of thinking and behaving. As the project calls time on these behaviours, a public re-examination of these choices becomes possible.
But what about the bullies, the enforcers?
What also becomes possible is the re-examination of the role of those holding the ‘enforcer’ role for the system. People can feel stuck with a set of objectives and judged against these, especially if those doing the judging also the very people leading the project to investigate bullying and incivility. This almost requires the senior team to ignore people who insist on reminding them of who and what is being ignored. Allowing people to step back from the roles they have found themselves through design or valency with good grace requires thought.
7. How does the senior leadership use its experience?
Leading the intervention and the desire to succeed, can lead a senior team to suppress its differences. To assume that its members think and feel the same. Convergent thinking, real or imagined, is not helpful if the work requires a curiosity about and tolerance of the diversity of people’s experience. A team that explores its difference, develops intelligence about who and what is being silenced or ignored ‘around here’4This is to pay attention the ‘parallel process’. The capacity of a group to replicate the issues that people are struggling with in the wider organization. For example, the group notices that it avoids conflict and silences people by ignoring them or using certain words and tones. This may reveal something about their own ways of working and how these ideas of difference play out in the wider organization. . It develops an understanding of the request it is making of others to speak to their experience. It signals to others an interest in different ideas and experiences and it is not naive about the politics of this.
8. How do we communicate our intentions to listen and to think?
To begin the senior team can invoke a transition5‘Transitions starts with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in (p.128)’. (Bridges, W. (2004) Transitions. Making sense of life’s changes. Da Capo Press, Cambridge MA.. To signal the team’s intention to question existing explanations of why bullying and incivility happen and reflexively do this. Also to signal the team’s intention to listen to people’s lived experience of work because it thinks that what to do next will only become clear if people can talk and work together.
The following sort of note/invitation can help flag the shift to the inquiry-based conversations (and uncertainty) that will be required to develop more effective approaches to the investigative process.
In response to the staff survey and recent events, we want to develop a different approach to what we have called unprofessional behaviours. We need to uncover and then tackle the underlying issues that are adversely affecting people’s ability to do their work. The research we have read is clear. Being on the receiving end of bullying and incivility affect how we think; how we feel and how we can collaborate to things done. Saying we want things to change is not the same as knowing how to it.
What we do know is that we need to find a way to ask people to talk about their lived and felt experience of work here. In asking this we are asking you to trust that we are in listening mode and that we know we also have to think hard about our involvement in what is going on.
We want to invite you to a semi-structured interview with X. We have asked her to help because while we need to lead this process, we also must not get in the way of people speaking. We have asked X to provide a confidential and safe enough space for you to talk about how you feel and experience your work. When it goes well and when it doesn’t’.
X will collate themes that will support us to have a conversation about what we think are the drivers for our unprofessional behaviours and what can help us step back from silencing others; being silenced and being bystanders to behaviours that undermine our capacity to work together to keep people safer.
This invitation is tricky. You are free to say as much or as little as you like. If it becomes clear that people are currently subject to bullying behaviours X will ask you what you would like to do. To be on the receiving end of incivility is harmful to individuals and those who are witness to it. It can also be a clue about what is hard to talk about around here. If we could find a way of talking about these issues, we will be less likely to use these unprofessional behaviours.
While we want to understand what organizational business is being transacted via these intensely personal behaviours, we also want people to feel safe. If we need to intervene and you agree, we will do so using existing HR procedures.
To summarize, the plan is to convene a series of confidential conversations, the content of which will be synthesized into themes. We will then agree a way a process to think through what we now know about what drives our unprofessional behaviours and what may help reduce its frequency. As a first step have a look at the summary of the research on the effects of bullying and incivility. To context X…
Who should sign any note?
For two reasons, it should be the most senior person. Firstly, to evidence a level of commitment to work that seeks to explore the shadow side of the team or organisation’s culture. Secondly, to evidence the understanding that no one is free of the requirement to think and talk. If the most senior person signs, they are demonstrating they are prepared to be involved and support and hold to account their senior team.
These preparatory conversations are key to establishing the agility of the senior team to lead. The complexity of the task needs to be understood, as far as that is possible before consulting people. The reason for intervening, linked to an understanding of the research on the effects of bullying and incivility needs to be discussed. The move to consult people must be a step into the unknown. People are being asked to pause and think about how it is for them. People will take the opportunity to speak and some of it will be hard to hear. Such discomfort is evidence of leading an effective intervention.
Stage 2 explains how to engage people and what to anticipate as they talk.
 That is, to demonstrate a ‘negative capability’ (French, 2000). The willingness and capability to sit with the ambiguity and resist flight into activity or ‘dispersal’.
Ref: French, R. (2000) Negative capability, dispersal, and the containment of emotion. Bristol Business School Teaching and Research Review, 3 (Summer), pp.1468-4578.
 To be reflexive is to be willing to ‘question our own habitual attitudes, theories-in-use, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions…’ (Bolton & Delderfield, 2018, p.9) to notice how these shape the world we see and how we take up our role in it. It is about looking at the ground we stand on, to notice what we notice and think about what we might not see or hear because of who we have become through training; education; gender; culture etc. It is a state of vigilance which also supports action.
Bolton, G. and Delderfield, R. (2018) Reflective practice. Writing and professional development. 5th edn. London, Sage.
 Blackwell, D. (1997) Holding, Containing and Bearing Witness: The Problem of Helpfulness in Encounters with Torture Survivors. Journal of Social Work Practice, 11(2), pp. 81-89.
 Blackwell, D. (1997) Holding, containing, and bearing witness: The problem of helpfulness in encounters with torture survivors. Journal of Social Work Practice, 11(2) pp.81-89.
 This is to pay attention the ‘parallel process’. The capacity of a group to replicate the issues that people are struggling with in the wider organization. For example, the group notices that it avoids conflict and silences people by ignoring them or using certain words and tones. This may reveal something about their own ways of working and how these ideas of difference play out in the wider organization.
 ‘Transitions starts with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in (p.128)’.
(Bridges, W. (2004) Transitions. Making sense of life’s changes. Da Capo Press, Cambridge MA.
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