The transformational changes occurring across the globe are redefining work for employees, and to remain in a competitive position, companies must adapt. Proposed legislation will add a new dimension to the way employers manage their people. It puts teeth into an inevitable cultural expectation that’s table stakes for the new anti-bully generation entering the workforce. Preparing for this change will help stabilize a company’s human assets, reduce risks to an organization and accelerate its competitive advantage.
This proposed legislation will outlaw the use of bullying for all employees within the workplace, not just protected class. It also has the powerful ability to illuminate internal bullying experiences for external consumption – meaning lawsuits filed can be read by anyone – customers, potential employees, board members and potential customers. The results to a company’s brand equity, financial solvency, ability to attract and retain talent, and future growth could be devastating.
As HR, the first step is to proactively minimize the potential effects by arming yourself with the knowledge of one of the most elusive forms of bullying, while creating an HR strategy to set your company up for success.
Manufactured conflict is defined as the creation of an issue or situation for the sole purpose of harming another individual. Most often used in the workplace by over-competitive executives or ascending “leaders” whose mindset is success at any cost, everything is fair game, including other employees. Unlike other bullies, they are strategic – and calculating – using both face-to-face and behind-the-scenes tactics.
Statistically, 100% of the time they target high performers.
- 70% percent by men
- 30% by women at higher levels
- less than 20% by a peer, and
- less than 10% by a subordinate.
The tactics used are workplace psychological warfare. Some are difficult to detect, but all have lasting negative implications, especially for women and people of color – the very people at the center of DE&I initiatives.
Men, who are targeted 35% of the time, are much quicker to adapt, although some have lasting effects, both personally and professionally.
It could likely explain, in part, why anxiety and PTSD claims against employers were up 70% in 2021.
HR’s ability to identify and swiftly remove these perpetrators from the workplace is critical to the future success of an organization.
To identify manufactured conflict, look for these tactics:
Discrediting is often one of the first signals of being targeted by a bully. Inflicted behind the scenes, the perpetrator plants seeds of doubt in key decision makers’ (KDM) minds. This creates a negative “mental note” from this point forward, where the KDM will most likely not give the person the benefit of the doubt while simultaneously looking for fault.
If a company encourages politics or requires executives to have strong “relationships”, this tactic also creates alliances against the victim. And the victim is unaware all of this is happening, yet subtle signs of distancing, icing out and odd conversations will begin to appear out of nowhere.
Once the umbrella of doubt has been established with KDM and leadership, the perpetrator will then begin to psych out the victim. The primary goal is to create a downward spiral of performance, thus giving them a reason to fire or remove the individual from their current position.
- Gas lighting. This method is used to create confusion and self-doubt in the victim. For example, the perpetrator may give the victim direction in a one-on-one situation only to question why they did it and then chastise them. They also use drama to put the victim off balance by demanding closed-door sessions. Here they may yell, accuse or order the person to perform an illegal act or get fired, only to deny it to HR later. The goal is to build a perception the victim is lying and putting the company at risk.
- Change expectations. The timing of this tactic is usually strategic (three to six months before year-end). Throughout the year the perpetrator doesn’t provide any negative feedback, but now, the victim can do nothing right. The perpetrator challenges everything, from their priorities to how they manage things. These manufactured situations are used against them in their formal appraisal.
- They double the workload. At the same time, while the perpetrator is signaling a job performance issue, they’ll add on more assignments with shorter timeframes. This tactic will actually begin to create real performance issues.
- Peers get the “signal”. Once the victim becomes a target, their peers will begin distancing themselves, isolating the individual even further, muting their impact and ability to perform.
The bully’s ‘why’
Every perpetrator has a larger agenda that typically aligns with two reasons: the need for more power and more money.
They’re simply using these tactics to get what they desire:
- Firing the person
- Getting them to leave so they don’t have to pay severance
- Eliminating their bonus or equity payment
- Hiring a friend
- Fulfilling a quid pro quo
- Returning a favor
- Taking over their department, and
- Expanding their power.
Your job is to identify and stop these perpetrators in their tracks.
Because most often they’ll use whatever tactic needed – legal or illegal. As they achieve higher levels, it only signals more risks for the organization. And worse yet, they must play this game to achieve higher levels because they lack true leadership skills. Promoting them only weakens the company.
The negative impact on your bottom line
Because these individuals have a title or influence within the organization, their behavior sets in motion a toxic downstream impact:
- People and Productivity. These perpetrators use their direct reports to rewrite the internal cultural laws and values for those within their control. If others want to be promoted, they must show loyalty to them. This helps the perpetrator create a scenario where the subordinate’s behavior may be used against them later. Employees and other top-performing leaders who live the company’s stated values will begin to question their loyalty to the company and will run for the exit.
- Brand. Picture a manufactured conflict story with a woman as a victim on the front page of a national or global publication. With women making upward of 90% of household purchases, canceling a brand that is targeting other women is not out of the question. What took a company years to build could dissolve in a few days. Thus, HR is becoming one of the largest imperatives to protecting a company’s brand.
- Profit. Perpetrators produce up to two times the negative profit of an average leader. Why? Because their decisions are made through a lens of what will help them, not the company. They waste a lot of time, money and resources creating their own internal power, not producing for the shareholders.
Making the case for a strategic shift
Proactive communications, training and adherence to leadership expectations are critical within any organization. Bullying, including targeting and manufactured conflict, is emerging as an enormous risk that requires attention at the highest levels of the organization.
A few questions to ask yourself as you begin to create your HR strategy:
- What is your business case for making the shift? Start with your delta: How could this new law affect the success of an overarching business plan and human capital strategy? Next, diagnose the level of risk to the organization.
- Are you legally prepared? Do you currently have strong policies and protocols in place that allow you to fire an employee for bullying behavior, including manufactured conflict (employment contracts, employee handbooks, etc.) and have you enforced them?
- Does HR have a centralized person or team with the appropriate skill set to identify bullying or manufactured conflict?
- How will you train leadership, from the C-suite to your front-end supervisors, to reset expectations?
- How will you train employees to identify, resolve and report bullying behavior?
Human resources should be responsible for the management of a company’s most important asset: people. Similar to a CFO who’s responsible for managing the overall financials and a CMO that manages the brand equity, HR should be responsible for managing the people. For HR, the leaders are the conduit or centers of influence to carry out an important mission.
To reduce the risk to the organization and set it up for future success, proactively addressing manufactured conflict and bullies within the organization is an emerging imperative. C-suite execs deserve to know the risk, and the strategy to fix it.
A company’s future success depends on it.