Careering Ahead

Bullying: how to use constructive confrontation

The debate about how to deal with internet trolls has become fiercer since the Olympics, after three very different reactions to cases of online abuse.

First, a teenager who tweeted abuse to diver Tom Daley after he and his partner finished fourth in the Olympic synchronised diving competition was arrested and given a police warning about harassment after the diver retweeted his comments.

Then presenter Helen Skelton, who had been working at the Olympics announced: “Turns out I don’t have very thick skin after all so I am closing my twitter account.”

Finally, British weightlifter, Zoe Smith revealed her record-breaking performance was her answer to those who had mocked her appearance on Twitter: “It’s two fingers up to them, basically: What are you doing with your life? I’ve just competed at the Olympics! Have some of that, trolls!”

No one should have to put up with abuse which leaves them feeling upset, demoralised or frightened. But what is the best response to bullying, cyber or otherwise?

In the case of the online trolls, many commentators have sensibly argued that the best approach is to deny them the reaction they crave. However, as I explained in my last blog, if you are working with someone who seems to go out of their way to upset or undermine you, simply trying to ignore them is unlikely to be a successful strategy. By the time you have moved on the bully may have inflicted real damage to your confidence and motivation. And after you have left, they are likely to turn on someone else.

It may be difficult but I’d advise doctors in this situation to be prepared to report unacceptable behaviour to your supervisor or human resources department using your trust’s anti-bullying policy. Please don’t be deterred by the worry you are being over-sensitive or that your career is at risk. If you report your experiences in good faith, your trust should take you seriously and take action. Of course, there are horror stories out there about doctors who have complained, but in my experience most human resources people take bullying very seriously. Their main concern is often that they can’t deal with bullies because their victims are reluctant to substantiate their claims.

Of course the wisdom of taking a colleague to task yourself over their behaviour depends very much on the circumstances and the culture within your workplace. For example, it’s sensible not to approach someone in a very senior position. Nor is it advisable if you work in a dysfunctional environment where anything goes and which is really in need of reform from above.

However, where the colleague has behaved unacceptably and you are prepared to challenge this, I believe constructive confrontation offers the best way to do so without making the situation worse:

– Private conversation: arrange to talk to the person privately during a quiet time so there is less chance they will lose face.

– Prepare: think about how to open the conversation by explaining the issue you want to discuss. It’s a good idea to keep a diary so that you can refer to specific examples but don’t bring this out in the meeting or you risk making your colleague feel under attack which may make them respond aggressively.

– Examples: give examples of the behaviour which you feel is unacceptable and how it affected you.

– Avoid personal criticism: telling someone that you found their email aggressive or that you found their interruptions rude is better than accusing them of being a bully or worse.

– Explanation: explain why this is important to you and for the team (avoid naming individuals as others may be reluctant to get involved).

– Resolution: explain that you want to resolve this issue and invite the other person to respond.

– Acknowledge the other person’s position: they may point to aspects of your own behaviour they find unacceptable. Be honest and accept justifiable criticism.

– Way forward: discuss how the situation can be improved and try and establish a new understanding.

– Deadline: set yourself a deadline for things to change and make notes of the conversation in case you need to refer to it later e.g. if nothing changes.

– Reflect: however the meeting goes, look back on what happened and how you handled the situation so that you can improve the next time you are faced with a difficult conversation.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with this technique and if that’s the case, it is probably better to leave it to a senior manager. Bear in mind however that some people who are seen as bullies may not even recognise the effect they have on others until it is brought to their attention. I’m sure that if they were honest, most would rather this happen in a constructive conversation than a disciplinary meeting.

Healthcare Performance was established by two doctors with over 30 years’ experience of clinical governance and medico-legal work. It specialises in careers coaching, professional development and organisational trouble-shooting within the healthcare sector.

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One Response to “Bullying: how to use constructive confrontation”

  1. privatepracticeexpert says:

    Interesting piece and whilst full of sensible advice in the end how useful at a practical level?

    As a higher surgical trainee I was subject to appalling bullying and abuse from my consultant. He was well known to the deanery for this as well as other trainees but this was never acknowledged openly nor was anything done about it. He did his best to ruin my career and took away a huge amount of my self-confidence and trust in my own knowledge and clinical judgement. Yet each individual slight or comment etc on it’s own didn’t seem that much and couldn’t be drawn attention to – it was only when you took the picture as a whole it was very clear that this was bullying and emotional abuse, plain and simple.

    I survived, but am quite sure that if I’d made a huge fuss to have him dealt with I would not have.

    He’s retired now so at least no-one else will have to put up with him.

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