Challenging the narrative that public sector workplace bullies cannot change

By The Mandarin

Tuesday May 4, 2021

(Image: Adobe/dusanpetkovic1)

Public sector leaders can stamp out bullying behaviours with the right approach, according to Working Well Together director Michael Plowright.

Bullying and “destructive abrasive behaviours” are widespread across the public sector, Plowright told The Mandarin.

Some research has estimated that global workplace bullying in the public sector sits between 5% and 30%. Closer to home, the Victorian government’s 2019 People Matter Survey indicated that 10% of public servants experienced bullying over a 12-month period. That same year bullying was even more prevalent in NSW, with 18% of respondents telling a similar survey they had experienced bullying, and 33% indicating they had witnessed bullying behaviours.

“It is fair to assume these statistics would be even higher and more nuanced in the public sector over the 18 months,” Plowright said.

Organisational change within governments — like cuts to funding that may be seen in next week’s budget — as well as the hierarchical structure of the public service can lead to “bullying and rancorous abrasive behaviours”.

“The public sector operates in an environment of bureaucratic and hierarchical structure leading to bullying, while policies and procedures are often rigidly implemented. Both environments are precursors of bullying behaviours,” Plowright said.

“A key challenge across sectors is the promotion of employees into supervisory positions based on technical, rather than leadership skills.”

READ MORE: Was Christine Holgate a casualty of workplace system failure?

Plowright said that while research has shown that psychopathy or narcissism are predictors of workplace bullying, “bullying is not solely a result of these factors”. Further, people who use bullying behaviours “are not all homogeneous”, and are capable of change.

Some studies have indicated that it is possible to reduce bullying behaviours. Plowright gave the example of global bullying expert Laura Crawshaw, who, over 30 years, has coached hundreds of abrasive leaders with bullying behaviours. Crawshaw has reported an 80% success rate in achieving positive behavioural change.

But holding onto the “populist narrative that all bullies are evil beasts” won’t solve the issue of workplace bullying, and will further entrench such behaviours, Plowright said.

“It is proven with the right perspective, training and programs, change is possible, and is desperately sought,” he said.

To tackle bullying and abrasive behaviours, public sector employers and leaders must deeply commit to change. Plowright has encouraged them to implement steps including:

  • Setting limits — inform the bully that their behaviour must change. No debate.
  • Setting consequences — tell the bully that failure to change will result in a consequence, and follow through with it.
  • Providing support — a third-person perspective, 360 degree coaching, and empathic leadership is essential to the role of support.

The earlier leaders act when they notice an employee’s abrasive behaviour, the better the outcome, Plowright said.

“Bullying behaviour may commonly originate from normalised conduct they have learned over their lifetime to their current situation. Internal mentoring, external coaching and lifestyle programs will be of value. Successful change relies on intervention,” he said.

READ MORE: Is your boss a bully or just demanding?


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