The complex dynamics in team bullying, part four

Part four in the series concludes the fictional case study that started earlier this week

This is the last part of a four-part series that comes out of my work with issues around one-to-one and team bullying over the past 25 years. The case study focuses on the trickery of the team leader accused of team bullying and the need for vigilance by the investigator in his dealings with her. The allegations against her involve her use of bullying behaviour in her one-to-one dealings with team members while she is ‘nice’ and ‘friendly’ to them in group environments.

We dive back into the action at the point when the investigator is meeting with the team leader following the complaint against her. Let’s explore two further ways she could handle this meeting, each of which shifts the discussion away from her bullying into territory that either lessens her responsibility or suggests that the investigator is misguided.

Tactic one: pretence

The team leader feigns concern for the team members who have complained about her. Adopting an apparently sympathetic and sweet-natured demeanour, she tells the investigator she is concerned that some members of her team are under significant work pressure and looking for a get-out clause.

She says that it is unfair of him to have absorbed so many untruths about her and asks him for the names of the people who have spoken so unkindly. She invites him to attend a team meeting and see for himself the friendly atmosphere in which she regularly makes coffee for her team. In an abrupt but carefully-calculated switch of mood, she looks the investigator in the eye and calmly says that she has ‘a right to know who said what’.

She is careful to present her restrained anger as the justifiable dismay of someone wrongly accused. The investigator is not convinced by her façade. He says: ‘Part of the complaint against you is that you present yourself as friendly and open in team settings while using coercive and demeaning behaviour in one-to-one meetings. To what extent have I just witnessed an example of you behaving sweetly as a ruse to cover up your use of bullying behaviour?’

Tactic two: Diverting focus

The team leader tries to dodge the confrontation by flatly denying that there is a problem with her behaviour towards her team members. She says that while her team is hard working it is not that skilled. She says that she has heard the investigator make allegations of team bullying against her and asks him what he is talking about. Without giving him time to reply, she says that the team is performing adequately, she has a development plan in place to improve its performance, and that she will make sure it meets its quarterly goals.

She then stands up and, looking the investigator in the eye, tells him that she was hired for her qualities as a manager and to question her approach now seems a poor use of his time. The investigator also stands up and, using a firm and direct tone, tells her that he has no option but to question her conduct because there is a formal complaint against her that he needs to investigate. He then says that the allegations against her will be subject to due process and that she would do well to resume her seat so that the meeting can continue.

Key lessons for investigators

A team bully is an able adversary. Whichever way the bully plays it they will be skilled at creating fog around the issues. Tactics will include attributing blame, lying, scapegoating and slandering members of the team. Bullies will deny the validity of the concerns raised by the investigation while presenting themselves as wronged recipients of unjust hearsay. A skilful combination of these tactics will change the point of the discussion away from their own guilt, clouding the real issues and claiming that they are the one whose efforts keep the team on track.

Bullies want to create complicated dynamics in the investigation meeting. Their main aim is to avoid responsibility for their bullying behaviour by trying to deceive the investigator. By anticipating these manoeuvres, recognising that bullies will refute absolutely any suggestion of wrongdoing on their part, and adopting an assertive and proactive approach, investigators stand a good chance of making sure that the process comes to a timely, just conclusion.

Aryanne Oade has worked as a chartered psychologist and coach for more than 25 years. She is the author of eight books, including Bullying in Teams: How to Survive It and Thrive

Read the first in this series

Part two of this series

Click to read the third article