The challenge of managing bullies

Opinion from Steve Ahern

Back when I was managing radio stations I had to deal with bullying staff several times. I was completely out of my depth at first.
To manage any organisation in a performance industry such as radio you need a combination of craft skills, people skills, audience research knowledge, competence in admin/legal, sales and business expertise.
Most managers don’t come up from a human resources background, so are not expert in techniques to handle something out of the ordinary. I certainly wasn’t.
The first time I had to manage a bully I just used instinct. I spoke firmly but politely to stop a bullying incident as it was happening. I then talked to the bully in a closed door office and told him his behaviour wasn’t appropriate. It didn’t work, he kept doing it, so I documented the unacceptable behaviour and began a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ process.
He was not one of our top presenters, but he was admired by listeners and well connected to senior management, so I got a lot of heat for calling him out on his poor behaviour. If he had left there would certainly have been blow back on me for letting a popular personality slip through my fingers.
The first formal written warning, referring to dismissal, did settle him down, but if that had not worked I would not have known what else to do. The HR procedure seemed very black and white and not nuanced enough to give many options in an industry such as ours. HR’s primary role is to protect the company, not always to solve the problem.
When his contract ended he left, turning his vitriol towards me on the way out.
That episode made me think that there must be a better way to manage ‘performance’ ego behaviour and bullying.  
It certainly made me very aware of my duty to look after all the other staff who worked for me and the difficult balancing act that such a task required. It also made me aware that just getting rid of the person may not always be possible or desirable, especially in a performance based industry like radio (or tv,  theatre or journalism for that matter).
It also made me wonder about the bully themselves. Why is a person a bully and can they ever change?
I sought help from some psychologist professionals and also looked to the example of high school anti-bullying programs, which seem to be changing modern society for the better.
The other two bullies I had to deal with later were worse than the first one, but the outcomes were better because I knew more about what to do.
Some things I learned:
Have a clear definition of bullying behaviour in your mind. The three most common components of bullying are power imbalances, repetitive actions, and intentional acts.
There are many workplace bullying policies full of standard advice and procedures. If they haven’t worked and you have to go a bit deeper, read on.
Most victims of bullying don’t talk about it and try to handle it on their own, so it can be difficult as a manager to corroborate the bullying on the record, but don’t wait for it all to blow up before doing something. If the atmosphere feels bad, and it is not fun to come to work, something is definitely wrong. We work in an exciting fun industry, if it doesn’t feel like that, then something is wrong and everyone is probably suffering in silence.
Be proactive in building a positive workplace culture because bullies cause division. This means, as a manager, spending time with all your people, getting to know them, making sure they all know each other personally, asking about their family, kids, taking an interest in the movie they saw last night or the concert they went to. Not just saying ‘how are you this morning’ and moving on, but really talking to people every day and facilitating that deeper dialogue between people. “Oh, you’re looking for a good movie to see tonight, X was telling me about a good one they saw, what was the name of that movie X…”   One important defence against bullies is co-worker untiy.
The bully often thinks their behaviour is normal or at least explainable or excusable and doesn’t know any other way. Getting the bully to realise that this is not normal behaviour is a start.
As a manager, try to allow the bully to feel safe with you, but don’t excuse their behaviour. Bullies often think everyone is against them, in their heads is an element of paranoia that keeps them on the defensive and waiting to fight. If you are trusted then you can tell them their behaviour is not acceptable in a way that may get through, rather than just create another attack/defence situation. But in working with the bully, be sure that you are not seen by the other staff as being ‘on the bully’s side.’ Try to treat everyone with the same level is respect and be consistent.
Teach strategies to control anger – was the person ever taught to manage their feelings and reactions? The old count to ten before opening your mouth strategy does help if you can get the bully to do it.
People often wrongly assume bullies have low self-esteem, but that is not always so. Their behaviour could be a response to internalised shame or fear of public failure. In our business of live radio, making a mistake and fearing public shame is a very high risk.



According to psychologists, people develop different ways of responding to shame. By adulthood, these coping responses become personality traits. Typical coping responses fall into four types: attacking others, attacking oneself, avoidance and withdrawal. When shame threatens people who bully – for example, when they risk looking incompetent at work – they will attack others. Attacking others not only blots out the shame they are feeling, but it also stimulates the experience of power… bullies can only stop their behaviour once they develop the ability to tolerate distress and work out where the shame came from in the first place.
Although bullies diminish others in an attempt to raise themselves up, they are often not conscious of how bad they feel about themselves.
Bullies need help to change. If you can’t give it yourself, send them to professional counselling.
Counselling will help the bully to uncover the trigger and explore why they are doing this. It will help them discover where the behaviour came from – parents? early school experiences?
Successful counselling will be a painful experience for the bully, just like going to rehab for a drinking problem. They will probably need time off air to successfully go through an experience of self-realisation and change.
Successful counselling will teach better friendship strategies, nurture empathy, combat paranoia, identify and rectify low self-esteem.
If the bully can learn to depend on and trust others without having to threaten for results, they may consider that it’s not actually necessary to manipulate others.
Successful counselling will also help the bully take responsibility, manage anger impulses and feel more included rather than isolated.
Even though bullies may appear confident and successful externally, inside their heads something else is going on. Good counselling will help reset that. While helping the bully, also make sure your other staff are safe and know that something is being done to try and rectify the problem.
If the bully can change as a result of counselling then the next steps before they come back to work will be for them to make amends to those they have harmed and not to repeat the bad behaviour again.
Managers are like anyone else, they want a happy work environment with as little trouble as possible. They are, hopefully, nice people who may not have had much personal experience in confronting bullying situations. So they may not know what to do. But they must do something.

If you are a manager reading this, if you ever face a bullying situation and don’t know what to do, don’t ignore it and hope it goes away. Get some expert advice and act to solve the problem (start by searching academic and psychology articles about ‘proactive and reactive aggressors’).

If you are a bully reading this… please get some help to change.

Workplace bullying has no place in the modern radio industry.


About the Author

Steve is the founding editor of this website.

He is a former broadcaster, programmer, senior executive and trainer who now runs his own company Ahern Media & Training Pty Ltd.

He is a regular writer and speaker about trends in media. More info here.




Main Image: Shutterstock

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