Grasp that nettle


Grasp that nettle – the introduction. It’s been a few years since I met Chris: who’d complained about the rest of the team, around seven of them. Chris found their humour childish and sometimes coarse, their conduct unprofessional and claimed that bullying was taking place. I’d been asked to intervene. Chris wanted the complaint to be taken seriously, to be escalated and for the tormentors to be admonished, officially.

Getting Started

There’s a small “need to know” list I go through before setting things in process and it goes something along the lines of:

  • How long has this been going on?
  • Who’s involved?
  • What’s the history?
  • What’s been done to date?
  • Where is leadership engaged with this?
  • Are we in breach of a policy here?
  • What’s the impact on team performance?

And the answers?

It had been going on since Chris joined the team and everyone was involved. There were a couple of higher profile individuals who were perceived as being the chief tormentors and there had been some attempt at engaging in a clarifying conversation, an attempt seen as “victim blaming.” 

Leadership had spoken with Chris and one or two of the others involved, in what can best be described as a “light touch” context; however, things hadn’t improved. Chris thought the organisation was in breach of its own Dignity at Work policy. The team was effectively treading on eggshells when Chris was present and were they suggested, more relaxed on Chris’ non-working days. 

Conclusions are easy things to jump to and my experience in conflict reduction/mediation informs me that they are almost invariably wrong. An early judgement call would have said that this was a case of workplace bullying, a gang rounding on someone who just didn’t fit in. But there’s always a backstory and after interviewing Chris and the other team members, a very different narrative emerged.

Another Version and Missing Leadership

Chris was hard work and there was history and for not the first (and I suspect not the last), I was asked to intervene to lessen the impact of an individual’s behaviour(s) on a wider group. The interviews suggested that when it came to some tough conversations, leadership was absent. No one was prepared it would seem, to establish and live to a series of policy-informed behavioural norms; this in a large organisation that prides itself on its published values.

And here’s a sad thing: referring to “Organisational Values” prompted an “eye roll” from everyone interviewed. Interactions within the team were the product of individuals following their own value sign-posted paths and patterns of behaviour and group norms, without reference to those promoted by the organisation. There was a considerable gap between published organisational expectations and individual behaviours, a gap that should have been addressed by consistent approaches from Senior Leadership, outwards and downwards through managers and other professional clusters.

Chris had individual and complex needs, ones that were manifested by manipulation of people and situations in a manner that secured a “victim role.” I was informed that there had been efforts made to befriend and these had backfired with the would be befriender being drawn into conversations about others and inevitably rejected by Chris, when they refused to go along with this damaged and damaging view of colleagues and associates. The point at which leadership could (should) have referred directly to the organisation’s behavioural expectations of its workforce had long since passed and this timid approach had toxified working relationships and (here’s the rub), had a damaging impact on key outputs.

Mary Beth O’Neil writes about the necessity to “Coach With Heart and Backbone,” and it’s my view that this phrase needs to be applied to leadership too. A balance of compassion and empathy set alongside maintaining, growing and evidencing high behavioural standards and expectations, And I agree, it’s a tough ask but when I reflect on this and similar experiences and consider the negative impacts on wellbeing and performance, the cost of ignoring either or both is quite simply too high.

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John Dooner
My work is informed by the belief that Human Dignity is the key to great outcomes and after leaving my last Local Government post (2002), I had the opportunity to work with people and teams who were looking for better alignment, a sense of purpose beyond the now and an opportunity to resolve tensions and conflicts that were holding them back. There have been some huge turning points; the opportunity to work with people as an enabler/coach has been fantastic. I’m a qualified mediator working with individuals and teams and work with groups in developing approaches to see us into a challenging and exciting future that’s also just a bit scary! I like walking, cycling, photography and using my local gym. I delight in connecting with people and believe that we all of us, hold the present in stewardship for the future. I’ve been lucky because I’ve worked with great people, I have to quote Einstein and Oasis, “Stood on the Shoulders of Giants!”