CAMBRIDGE – A survey of UNISON Trades Union members in 2011 suggested that up to 60% had been bullied or witnessed bullying at work in the previous year. Last year, and for the second year running, 24% of NHS employees working in hospital trusts in England said that they had ‘personally experienced harassment, bullying or abuse at work’ from a manager, team leader or colleague. ‘Bullying culture’ is a term repeatedly used to describe elements of the UK police, the armed forces, NHS and teaching. Abusive environments often appear to originate from the very top of public sector organisations. It is clear that this can radically affect our experience of public service.
But what is going on here? Are these service professions really so abusive? There’s plenty of published and private anecdote to suggest they can be. But it’s also true to say that a stretched and financially embattled service may begin to exhibit a whole load of unintended behaviours. The issue is complex. We are left to wonder how much of the apparent abuse results from unpleasant personalities exerting influence on their peers, their managers or their subordinates and how much results from well-intentioned managers deferring to an oppressive organisational culture or just struggling to manage the pressure. In some cases it may even be that a compliant about bullying is itself a way to bully management.
So a challenge for boards and regulators alike is to be able to distinguish between personal harassment arising from persistent and deliberate behaviour of another and the disempowerment of staff undermined by cultural and structural behaviours (e.g. unmanageable workload). The solutions to these two scenarios are clearly very different. Standard approaches include wielding a performance review stick with which to beat bad managers, pushing workforce through leadership training or values programmes in the hope that culture improves or even quietly shuffling people into other jobs. In isolation, these approaches can risk missing the point or simply being unrealistic and unsustainable.
Another approach is to build a fuller and franker understanding of the relationships at work in the organisation and identify where dysfunction needs to be addressed. On the whole, changing relationships that have abusive consequences is a more transformational activity than dealing with individuals who are bullies. Add in the wider organisational performance pay-offs of improved employee relationship and the investment of effort begins to look compelling.
Addressing relational dysfunction is a challenging activity, especially at the scale of a hospital trust or a Local Government Department. The effectiveness of the intervention is largely related to the quality of the insight into the issue. Relationship can be considered in terms of its strength in a number of related aspects, such as power, communication and history. Each of these aspects can be measured. This detailed insight identifies a range of possible levers for change – effective relationship does not necessarily hinge on individuals liking each other and is certainly not constrained by the involvement of differing personalities. Where some aspects of a relationship are fixed, there are usually other dimensions that can be adjusted to bring the desired improvement.
In partnership with Relational Research, companies like Renuma Consulting are working to help the public sector become a measurably less abusive place to work. They are enabling organisations to invest in their employee and inter-departmental relationships, as well as developing tools that equip boards with a more informative and accurate picture of their organisation’s culture, avoiding the “worrying disconnect” between management and frontline staff.
Renuma Consulting is one of the member organisations of the Relational Thinking network and was established to help organisations understand what is happening in their critical relationships and then find ways to improve those relationships. For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.