In the previous installment, I discussed bullying autistic employees may experience in the workplace. While bullying is a painful issue for many individuals and a costly problem for organizations, for autistic individuals it is particularly likely to turn into a repeated cycle of distress due to physiological differences associated with autism, the effects of repeated trauma, and the effects of bias. Here, I will briefly review some of the issues with typical ways in which organizations address bullying, and then focus on cultural and structural interventions that can help not only address bullying, but improve organizational functioning, climate, and productivity overall.
SHORTCOMINGS OF TRADITIONAL BULLYING INTERVENTIONS
While most organizations declare a commitment to healthy workplaces, the methods used in addressing bullying are more likely to be based on tradition than on research evidence supporting their effectiveness. Unfortunately, traditional methods tend to be ineffective – and particularly so for addressing the workplace safety needs of autistic and other neurodivergent employees (for example, those struggling with PTSD or complex PTSD). There are several key reasons for these shortcomings:
First, the focus is often reactive and focused on addressing bullying after it is proven to have occurred. However, according the extensive research, the first line in addressing all workplace stressors should be prevention. Preventing harm is both more ethical and more practical. Addressing harm that has already occurred is substantially more difficult.
Second, addressing the bullying harm is particularly difficult because the burden of proof typically falls on the target. This approach fails to take into account that bullying is trauma, and the disparate effects of the process on those who are already disadvantaged.
Targets are typically required to document bullying behavior – what happened, when, who was present, etc. While such records are certainly helpful, maintaining them is taxing – and disproportionally so for most neurodivergent individuals, as well as those with a history of trauma, generational trauma, or various disabilities. Doing any additional record-keeping work while maintaining a job performance is already an added strain. Documenting your own trauma while the trauma is happening is an even taller order. Documenting your own trauma while it is happening when you are autistic and might have communication differences, particularly under stress, struggle with alexithymia, a lifetime of prior trauma, depression, or anxiety is about as easy as performing brain surgery on oneself. Furthermore, well-meaning advice suggests that bullying targets discuss these records with their supervisors while using “a calm voice and confident body language.” This is another expectation that most targets of bullying, particularly neurodivergent or those with a prior history of developmental trauma or mental health challenges would struggle to meet. Because the process of grievance is in itself traumatizing, many targets end up leaving the organizations
Finally, another ineffective approach to bullying is the overall focus on blaming or “fixing” personality characteristics of targets and bullies. However, ultimately, bullying is a behavior of opportunity. In addition to bully characteristics, such as the sense of entitlement, fragile ego, and lack of self-control, a condition for bullying is an organizational environment that allows for bullying to occur and continue undetected or unaddressed, and the culture in which bullying behavior is rewarded (e.g., by access to scarce resources or advancement).
FOCUS ON PREVENTION: CREATING HEALTHY ORGANIZATIONS
Organizations are responsible for creating environments that maximize the likelihood of preventing bullying. Organizational systems can reduce the likelihood of bullying in several ways:
Transparency and stress prevention:
- Organizations should avoid creating environments of internal competition. This requires distributing resources in fair and transparent ways and balancing team-level rewards with individual rewards.
- Realistic workloads help prevent instrumental bullying used to reduce one’s workload, while transparent workloads can help partially address envy-based bullying.
- Organizational transparency in decision-making can help prevent bullying manifested as rumors, backstabbing, or circumventing, because these behaviors will be less likely to be rewarding.
Behavioral standards and training:
- A workplace policy should set the standards of behavior and make a clear statement that bullying behavior is not tolerated,
- All employees should be trained in respectful communication.
- Training for new managers must include dealing with complex interpersonal scenarios. Managers and employees should also be supported in their work by professionals trained in developing and maintaining psychological, relational, and workplace wellbeing who can serve as a neutral party.
TRAUMA-INFORMED ORGANIZATIONS AND NON-VIOLENT COMMUNICATION
One promising way for creating healthier workplaces is by designing trauma-informed organizations. Models of trauma-informed organizations and trauma-informed leadership have long been used in helping professions, first response organizations, and other environments where the heightened stress is likely. These principles can be adapted to all organizations and contexts.
Key principles of the trauma-informed approach are safety, transparency, peer support, collaboration, empowerment, and understanding of cultural, gender, and other diversity factors in human experience and behavior.
One of the key components of supporting safety in trauma-informed and wellbeing-oriented workplaces is non-violent communication. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella’s emphasis on non-violent communication was a significant factor in transforming the infamously brutal organizational culture into a positive one. The four components of non-violent communication are:
- Observing and describing what is happening – without judgment.
- Stating how you feel while avoiding the “victim verbs” (“I am confused” or “I don’t know what to do” vs. “insulted”). This is extremely hard for those with alexithymia and related conditions, as well as many people while under stress, but this worksheet could help. Those who do not struggle with identifying their emotions should be reminded that emotional awareness is harder for some than for others. This can be a useful part of neurodiversity inclusion training.
- Explaining how your needs are connected to your feelings.
- Requesting a specific action.
For example, rather than demanding that a person attempting to communicate a complaint about bullying “calm down” managers or coworkers could say “I would love to help you, but I need to know what the problem is; otherwise, I just feel worried. Can you please tell me what could be done to help you?”
CIVILITY NORMS AND NORMS FOR CONSTRUCTIVE COMMUNICATION
An important component of a psychologically healthy workplace is civility (norms for respectful treatment). Unfortunately, some confuse the need for authenticity and voice (employee communication of ideas) with a license to be cruel. However, organizational cultures can combine civility and voice. The presence or absence of civility and voice in an organizational communication climate creates 4 types of organizational climate. Some of these climates can be conducive to certain forms of bullying.
Constructive: high civility, high voice climate, characterized by transparency and effective psychologically safe communication – not only top-down, but in all directions. People are free to ask clarifying questions and explore even sensitive topics without the fear of repercussions – as long as this does not turn into personal attacks. Combining the benefits of civility and voice tends to result in maximizing clarity and transparency, which may help prevent bullying and support both wellbeing and productivity.
Contentious: low civility, high voice climate. People in the organization may speak freely, but communication may lack sensitivity to others. Some overt forms of bullying (e.g., repeated rudeness) might seem “acceptable” in such environments. Encouraging civility and providing communication training is likely to improve contentious climates. Unfortunately, some managers attempt to “fix” contentions environments by removing voice.
Compliant: high civility, low voice climate. While this climate may create an illusion of peace, it may also be rather conducive to covert forms of bullying (gossip, backstabbing, withholding information).
Corrosive: low civility, low voice climate. Frustrated, fearful, and disempowered employees turn on each other using both overt and covert bullying, turnover is likely to be high, and the organization loses productivity.
Developing organizational climates of high civility and high voice is likely to reduce bullying, and improve the psychological environment for all employees. Moreover, the cultural and structural interventions required to prevent bullying fit with the larger approach of designing inclusive organizations with transparency, justice, and evidence-based decision-making.
While prevention is the first line of defense against workplace bullying, some incidents of bullying still occur. Addressing such situations requires that managers or other investigators are well trained and aware of their own biases that may lead to siding with the bully.
According to the Society for Human Resources Management, selecting the investigator is critically important. The appropriate investigator should be able to examine the situation objectively without bias. This means they should have no stake in the outcome or personal relationship with the involved parties. The outcome should not directly affect the investigator’s position within the organization. Investigative skills and strong interpersonal skills are also a must.
Moreover, investigators should be accountable for their findings. The mechanism for correcting mistakes in the investigation should be available to ensure justice to all parties.
In addition, neuroinclusivity requires that investigators have a working understanding of neurodiversity. This is necessary for both dealing with those who bring bullying complaints, and those who are accused of bullying, because sometimes neurodivergent characteristics, in particular, autistic communication, can be confused with bullying.
AUTISTIC COMMUNICATION: NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH BULLYUING
Some individuals mistake autistic communication characteristics, such as focus on facts rather than social convention, and directness with bullying or incivility. Hence, autistic individuals are sometimes accused of bullying when their behavior might be intended as helping or truth-telling. There are tests that allow separating autistic communication from bullying – autistic communication is both more consistent and less covert than bullying.
Autistic individuals sometimes provide negative factual information without culturally expected hedging. For example, they may note that someone had made a mistake, is doing less work than others, or made an illogical suggestion. An autistic individual can make such comments regardless of whether the other party has more or less organizational power than the autistic individual – for example, an autistic employee might tell CEO that they are making a mistake in the same way they would to an entry-level employee. They would also make the same statements one-on-one or in public. A bully is likely to make covert negative remarks to or about people who lack positional or personal power, and will not repeat negative statements made in one-on-one situations publicly. Although neurodivergent people can sometimes engage in bullying behaviors, it is important to separate these from neurodivergent behaviors and, specifically, autistic communication. While bullying is not acceptable, the directness and factual focus of autistic communication can be considered a strength in organizations that value truthfulness and transparency.
In sum, workplace bullying should first be addressed via prevention mechanisms. Creating workplace environments that are healthy and inclusive rather than toxic structurally, by design, helps prevent bullying and supports wellbeing and productivity of all. Addressing bullying incidents and reports requires sensitivity, fairness, and understanding of individuals, organizations, and law. In addition, understanding of neurodiversity, trauma, and trauma-informed communication further facilitates creating inclusive and psychologically safe workplaces.