The previous stages have been about preparing to intervene and experimenting with interventions to question behaviours as they happen. This stage is about learning from these small actions. Learning about what happens when you shift from a retrospective question – ‘why did we behave like this?’ to ‘why are we behaving like this right now?’.
The approach to bullying and incivility seeks to increase psychological safety. To enable and require people to say more about their lived experience of work; so that gaps in understanding about what keeps people safer can be shared and narrowed. A sign that the gap is narrowing are stories of ‘argumentation’ as normal.
Conversations where people question and challenge ideas in the moment. Where the person questioning, is direct and curious and kind but who can let the role go and allow others to take it up. Where the individual on the end of the questioning does not feel like the target and remains willing and able to offer their know-how. Where ‘by-standing’ is not a role of silence but one that is looking out for the overall flow and conduct of a conversation. Where the meeting has people who can sit, listen, think and intervene.
This is a time for the leadership to be vigilant about the resurgence of poor behaviour. Interest in the work will diminish. It is a fallacy to think these behaviours go away. The investigation should have helped people test the proposition that organisational business is transacted via bullying and uncivil behaviours. The investigation will also have helped people think about what their responsibility is to each other when things get heated. However, the pressure and complexity of the work will not have changed. The dilemmas that need managing do not disappear.
A senior leadership who can acknowledge the complexity people must face; the inevitability of unprofessional behaviours; and the expectation people intervene to help; are more likely to create psychological safety. One way to acknowledge this ‘value’ is to intervene as stuff happens and the second is to embed this value in existing work. For example:
- How do we train people to facilitate good meetings, given this is a site for some of these behaviours?
- How do we induct people into our understanding of these behaviours as they join us?
- What are the implications for how we develop a ‘Just Culture’ and the inevitable mistakes and errors we will make?
- How do we align leadership/management development activities to what we now know about the challenge of confronting these behaviours in the moment?
It is not easy to reduce the frequency of bullying and incivility, despite understanding the evidence of the impact of these behaviours. Telling people to be kind, to celebrate difference, is insufficient advice and may make things worse. Worse because it can become harder to speak to the lived experience of being in a meeting when someone is told to ‘shut the **** up’ and if this moment goes unchallenged.
These stages and steps describe a practical approach based on work in complex organisations to reduce the frequency of poor behaviours. Behaviours that undermine people’s capacity to think, collaborate and sustain commitment. Behaviour that costs money.
It is an approach that needs to be applied with caution. Why? Because it is emergent and rooted in what people are trying. It is also incomplete, so it is an approach anchored in learning as you go. Such an approach places a duty on the senior leadership to guide, hold and contain so that learning can take place, be applied and refined. This duty requires that the senior leadership thinks about its part in what is going on, and critically decides about whether it cares enough to go where the difficulties are. Without this decision, the intervention will be heard by people as what is aimed for, tokenistic, not what is lived.