Illustration by Cat O’Neil
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While investigating the relationship between nursing performance and team working, Harvard academic Amy Edmondson made a curious discovery. Her data showed that the lower a team’s morale, the fewer errors its nurses made.

That was surprising — until the penny dropped. Nurses who were constantly criticised and belittled by managers had merely learned to hide mistakes.

That discovery in the 1990s, which Professor Edmondson describes in a new book The Fearless Organization, prompted her research into “psychological safety”. When workplaces are ruled by fear, she says, workers stop learning, innovation dries up and pandering to power replaces candour and useful debate.

Fortunately, Prof Edmondson’s book also sets out how leaders can create a workplace that values ideas and encourages positive contributions (see tips below).

Organisations may be aware of the damage caused by bullying, but it is hard to root out. Whistleblowers regularly report difficulties in highlighting problems, while a new study by City & Guilds Group, which promotes skills in the UK workforce, reveals that bullying is widespread. The research found that 52 per cent of UK staff employed by large global organisations have encountered bullying.

Many organisations publish dignity and respect policies. Yet, as an independent inquiry into bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff highlighted last year, policies are worth little without institutional commitment. The UK report, led by Dame Laura Cox, said that people remain silent because they fear being “disbelieved”, “ostracised” and “branded a ‘troublemaker’”.

They may also lack faith in the reporting process and doubt the organisation’s willingness to act, especially if the bully or abuser is considered a high-flyer. That was Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s experience after she reported her manager to HR for alleged sexual harassment.

Taking action over managers who humiliate or harass others sends a message to the whole organisation. It is also a reminder to selection panels to pay heed to the character of those they promote into management.

For some organisations that may mean looking at how star performers achieve their success, says Linda Aiello, who heads international HR at Salesforce, the US technology company. “As [people] go through the organisation, ‘the how’ and the behaviours that surround [achievement] become more and more important.”

So-called 360-degree-style appraisals that gather feedback from teammates and juniors should in theory stop the rise of colleagues who kiss up to superiors and kick down underlings. Yet allegations by former Facebook employees that staff forge opportunistic friendships around appraisal time, highlight that such practices can be gamed.

Emilie Colker, executive director at international design company Ideo, recommends collecting feedback continuously, not just at bonus time, and noting who co-workers want to work with on their projects. Over time it becomes apparent that “certain people are asked for a lot”.

At the same time, Wim Vandekerckhove, reader in business ethics at the University of Greenwich, recommends systematically recording complaints and concerns. “If a pattern becomes visible it may be that the manager needs an additional skill, or it may be that being a manager isn’t for them.”

In his management bestseller, The No Asshole Rule, Stanford professor Robert Sutton warns that bosses who crack the whip and engage in backbiting appoint like-minded deputies, and even decent colleagues feel pressured to join in. “If you work for a jerk, odds are you will become one,” he wrote in a blog about the book.

To build a high-achieving culture based on teamwork, Ideo emphasises via statements and promotion policies that employees’ success will also depend on helping others. “Even if you’re a rock star you still won’t progress unless you’re making other people successful,” Ms Colker says.

Employers can help teach workers how to challenge mistreatment, says Wendy Addison, founder of consultancy SpeakOut SpeakUp. “Bystander training”, for instance, teaches how to be an ally when others need help, and how to ask co-workers for back-up.

Angélique Parisot-Potter, general counsel at Trinidad-based Massy Group, explains why such training is needed. At an event as a new hire at a previous employer, she was followed to her hotel room by a senior executive who tried to proposition her. “He did it to many people and his subordinates, seeing it, would say [to him], ‘no, your room is this way’.”

They thought they were dealing with the problem, but they were normalising it, and setting up other employees to become targets too.

Without fear: four tips

Amy Edmondson’s rules for leaders:

  • Make clear you do not have all the answers
  • Listen respectfully and with curiosity when others suggest ideas or voice concerns
  • Be constructive about honest slip-ups or failed experiments
  • Respond with toughness on genuinely blameworthy acts, such as wilful violations
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