Updated: Jan 20
You never know when or where you'll meet a bully. If you do encounter such a person there are techniques to use to help everyone navigate towards a safer, more sustainable way of working.
Bullies are just being themselves
Most workplace bullies don’t mean to make your life miserable; they’re just being themselves. I learned this lesson when I went on a 2-day neuroscience course that focused on personality and behaviour. There are no real evil people (well very few) in the workplace; a lot of inter-personal clashes have to do with the fact that we are all wired differently with beliefs, traits, values and perspectives unique to us as individuals. Diversity is a good thing.
Agile has a lot to say about us all getting along as we deliver value (interaction and individuals) but it doesn’t guarantee that people in a team will get along just because we have a retro every two weeks. A lot of my coaching work has focused on working with “difficult” stakeholders who were seen as non-believers in the agile way of working. Often the staff who interact with these "difficult" people would report an experience of feeling bullied. Just to be clear on what I mean by bullying here’s a definition
Bullying is the use of force, coercion, or threat, to abuse, aggressively dominate or intimidate. The behaviour is often repeated and habitual.
On a personal level I care a lot about this topic. I've never posted about bullying before due to feeling a bit vulnerable doing so. But this year I want to talk more from my heart and less from my head, so here goes...
Why I care about this topic and why you should too
I’d like to talk about something central to my world view, my personal “why” and the source of motivation that prompted me to write this post for you. My personal /professional inner drive is to
use kindness (and agile) to rid the workplace of bullies
I've always wondered why is it that sometimes people stop being kind when the pressure to deliver is high? (I'm actually giving a talk on this topic at an upcoming conference) Why are the softer aspects of the human condition seen by some as having no place at work. I recently saw a post on LinkedIn saying
“Let’s get emotion out of our work and get to the top 1%!”
Oh, please, surely this mindset needs to be retired with the baby boomers as they move out of the workforce. If an agile leader needs to revert to being the “Boss” and utilising coercion to get agile teams aligned, motivated and delivering value then they have absolutely, totally lost their way.
Agile to me is about managing the tension of getting the job done whilst keeping everyone honestly contributing as a team. Really it is about holding each other accountable to what we said we would do together; the leader ensures the team knows what the north star objectives are and that the team has everything they need to get the job done. Of course leaders also are active during delivery; removing organisational impediments as the work progresses. Unfortunately some leaders drift back into controlling, coercive behaviour; so what can WE do about this...
Five Coaching techniques to deal with bullying behaviour
Here are some of my recommended coaching techniques I’ve used when having to deal with bullying. All of what is listed below is done with what I call “conscious kindness”. Being nice on purpose :-)
1. Be prepared to have THE conversation
THE conversation simply means providing the bully with feedback on the affects/impacts of their behaviour and provide them with the opportunity to change. These conversations are difficult (to say the least), but often fall to the senior agile coach to have with the person concerned. I’ve had many of these and found each one uniquely challenging but beneficial in strengthening my practice and helping raise self-awareness in the person I was coaching. Usually these conversations are thankless as the bully will not be used to being “challenged” on their behaviour; making this type of work doubly uncomfortable.
2. Collect quantitative and qualitative feedback
Recently I was coaching a team with a difficult product owner. After 3 months of coaching I could assign a percentage reduction in team velocity to the disruptive and bullying behaviour. Every behavioural incident would put the team back by 20% as trust plummeted and people felt threatened to speak up. In fact, to engage me as the agile coach for the team had cost the organisation $100,000 and was almost entirely the result of one person’s behaviour. I gathered interview feedback from the entire team, together with the data on velocity impacts and used this to have multiple coaching conversations with the product owner about her behaviour. What was the outcome?... that's for another post.
3. Accept what you can change about a person
Coaching for deep personal change to enable the client to have a reframing of their self, is usually out of scope for an agile coach. The work we do can have an impact on the life journey of those in and around the teams we coach but our job does not usually involve life coaching. So I would focus on enabling bullies to see the world from a different perspective through the introduction of new ways to work. Then I would gently nudge them to reconsider their world views in how they treat people in the workplace. If the opportunity to provide leadership/life coaching comes up then step in and provide it but don't push this as a core part of your role. It is a nice-to-have not a must-have element of agile coaching; also remember that professional coaching needs to be "pulled" as a service from the client with explicit permission given for you to provide this type of coaching.
4. Face into and own your own perspective
As I said earlier, bullies don’t set out to be unkind, they’re just being themselves. Often those feeling bullied also need to do some introspection and own their part of the relationship. When I feel bullied I try to own my part of that experience; this helps me avoid becoming a victim in the situation. So as an agile coach working within a team, always be Switzerland and stay neutral, helping everyone take ownership of their part of the interpersonal problems that inevitably arise when humans try to get work done together.
5. Use the retrospective process as it is designed
Often I see retros happening at the team level with the leaders not running the same learning ceremony. It is too common to have leaders that "don’t do retros" but instead just get the outputs from the team retros. Obviously this pattern needs to be addressed by the agile coach and any supposed bullies need to have a forum where they are provided the opportunity to inspect and adapt their behaviour. This is where a highly competent agile coach would do their work to provide introspection opportunities. The coach would ensure the retro is NOT superficial or task-based but addresses the deeper mindset shifts required from those exhibiting bullying behaviour.
Bullies are not “bad” people; they just need feedback on the impacts of their behaviour so that they can learn. Of course they have to want to learn; but that's another problem (and post) and is mostly out of your control. What can become a problem is when the organisation adopting agile enables bullying behaviour. Often bullies deliver, but at a human cost; our job as agile coaching professionals is to make visible the cost of bullying in the workplace. If we can use transparency to highlight the impacts bullying has on our workforce then we can adapt and change to more sustainable ways of working with agile.
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p.s. I've just launched my new and free Responsive Agile Coaching super-duper 12-day email mini-course; you'll learn hands-on practical techniques on how to handle bullies check it out and enrol here. It is fun, free with lots of videos and experiments to try!