APU Business Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

How to Address Toxic Behavior and Bullying in the Workplace

Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Catherine Mattice, founder, Civility Partners

Bullying and toxic behavior can create a negative and aggressive work environment. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to author and executive coach Catherine Mattice about how leaders can address toxic behavior and create a positive organizational culture. Also hear how the shift to remote and hybrid work has affected corporate culture and what steps leaders can take to retain employees and ensure strong work-life balance.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today, we are going to talk about creating respectful workplace cultures.

Our guest today is Catherine Mattice. Catherine is the founder of Civility Partners, and she is a strategic HR consultant who assists organizations in building positive cultures through HR practices. She is also a widely recognized thought leader and she is passionate about employer’s responsibility to create the opportunity and the environment for employees to thrive.

It shows in her sheer number of conferences and publications. She has appeared on or in NPR, CNN, USA Today, Time.com, and more as an expert, she has published articles in a wide variety of venues and was a regular contributor to Forbes.com. Catherine’s award-winning first book, “Back Off! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying @ Work,” was handled by international leadership guru, Ken Blanchard, as the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic. She’s since written two more books and is a LinkedIn Learning course author. Catherine, welcome to our podcast today and thank you for joining me.

Catherine Mattice: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: It’s a pleasure. We’re so excited about what you’re going to talk about today and we just want to jump in on the topic of creating respectful workplace cultures. Your scope of work is very timely because you can explain your thoughts on how did we get to this point where the culture in some businesses has become so negative and aggressive. What are your thoughts and how did you find your business and believe that this was the niche and direction that you should go?

Catherine Mattice: I found my business through my own experiences. I was the Director of Human Resources for an organization where I worked with someone who was fairly toxic. This was another director, so he was my peer, not my boss. We both reported directly to the president. He was a frustrating individual. He was a micromanager, he yelled, he got after people, he made it very clear if he didn’t like you. He was my peer and had no business micromanaging me, for example, but definitely attempted to do so. We just had a lot of issues.

As the Director of HR, I was dealing with all of the problems he created for the organization. I spent a lot of time counseling people who were frustrated with him. I spent a lot of time dealing with the turnover that was going on in his department, just constant turnover. I saw firsthand the cost of bad behavior to an organization, but then I also felt picked on. I was also experiencing the cost to an individual of that type of behavior.

I started getting my Master’s degree while I worked there and ended up doing all of my graduate research on the topic of workplace bullying and just really became an expert in that. I joke I have a master’s degree in workplace bullying. I just was fascinated by it and found it really therapeutic to learn about this topic from an academic place. I just realized through that research that it’s a huge problem all across the world and there aren’t a lot of people out there fixing it. Civility Partners was born pretty quickly out of grad school.

[Podcast: Addressing Workplace Bullying]

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: What you described as a story that is not uncommon. We see a lot of it, even on LinkedIn, a lot of people sharing their stories. I’ve always had this question in my mind and I want to throw it out to you to get your perspective. I’ve always wondered: Why do organizations allow people like this to be a part of their leadership teams?

What has been your experience in terms of companies who have either hired you or your observations just in general of organizations. How do they get there and why do they allow it?

Catherine Mattice: Well, the simple answer is the bottom line. I’ll give you a little background. The reason people engage in toxic behavior like that is they fear incompetence, they fear people will see them as incompetent.  That turns into working like crazy, focusing on being seen as valued. So, people who engage in this behavior are super high performers and that reflects in the bottom line.

In my example, the guy had been there for 14 years and the president felt that if he left, there would be so much knowledge that this person would take with him that we would be in a world of hurt. Often these people are sales, they’re bringing in a ton of money, or they’re creating some sort of new program that the organization wants to run. That’s the answer: The C-suite often decides that person’s performance is a lot more important than the damage that they’re causing. It’s hard to quantify the damage, it’s hard to quantify low morale, stress, absenteeism or presenteeism. That’s the answer: The bottom line.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I’m glad you said that, because when I proposed that question probably about 15 years ago when this program came out, they pretty much gave me the answer that you did. You have a background like I do, in human resources, so my next question was: Why wouldn’t you get rid of the one person versus allowing maybe 50 or 60 people to leave?

I am glad you gave the same answer that I was given years ago because it puts in perspective the type of work you have to do, but also allow people who have to experience this, know that they’re not crazy.

Now, I wanted to jump forward because we are living in an interesting time and I want to hear how your business has changed as a result of the pandemic, and most notably about The Great Resignation. How are companies responding to that, and are they altering some of their culture and behaviors?

Catherine Mattice: The answer to your first question is my business has changed quite a bit. We’ve grown a lot, we’ve got a ton of clients coming in. Also, in relation to Black Lives Matter where psychological safety is an issue that crosses both Black Lives Matter and the pandemic, people need to feel safe. We’ve been through a lot together as a society, as a world. People are stressed and burned out. That focus on culture is definitely really starting to bloom, or we’re in a high focus on culture time right now.

In terms of the second question, the Great Resignation, there’s a couple of facets there. Yes, I hear a lot of people saying, for example, lawyers are deciding that, “You know what? I don’t want to be working millions of hours. I don’t want to be doing this. I’m going to go open an art studio,” they want to change their career.

There’s that, you can’t help that. But the other reason people leave is the grass is greener. They’ve decided, “I’ve been through a lot in this company, I’m not being treated well. I’m going to go somewhere else to see if I can be treated the way that I want to be treated and get the things that I need to function.”

If you’re an employer, you have to ask yourself, what are people saying in the exit interviews? Are they leaving because they did find their new career path and they want to go from being a lawyer to an art teacher? There’s nothing you can do about that, but if in the exit interviews they’re talking about the culture or they need more flexibility or that somebody’s toxic and they’ve decided they don’t want to work with that toxic person anymore, then that’s a sign that you have to look inward at your organization, and then you can influence how many people are resigning.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. Before I was reading the articles about the Great Resignation, I saw a number of articles that talked about surveys. In these surveys, they asked the question about remote work versus hybrid work versus coming back to the office full-time. There was a notable difference between what employees were saying and what the leadership teams were saying.

In your opinion, what advice would you give to the leaders that see that their employees are talking directly to them, but yet they’re reluctant to take a chance and compromise or come up at a halfway point where both parties win?

Catherine Mattice: Yeah, I think the future of work is going to be hybrid, where you’re going to have to compromise. If leaders want employees back at work, they’re going to lose people who are going to say, “Well, I’m going to go find a job where I don’t have to be in the office.” On the flip side, employees have to recognize why leaders may want people in the office. It is a big part of culture and working well together when you see people in-person. I hope that we can come to a compromise.

But, in terms of advice for leaders, I would say a couple things: One, if you’re focused on equity and inclusion, you have to offer flexible work because there are lots of people out there who need that, for example, moms. There’s lots of research related to how work has really changed for people of color, so if you’re going to be touting that, you have to consider flexible work and letting people work from home or hybrid at the very least.

Secondly, I think you have to be prepared for the aftermath. If you’re going to really focus on bringing people back and that’s your firm stance, that’s fine, but recognize you probably will lose people. You just have to be willing to take that and spend the effort and time and money to find replacements for those people who will leave, who would be willing to come to work. But so many organizations are offering, at the very least, hybrid, I think you’re going to have a hard time finding new talent if you’re forcing people to come to work.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. You named a number of different groups, but also the difference between the generations and what expectations are and the way that they prefer to work. I think it’s a little bit different. What’s on the horizon for the workplace of the future?

Catherine Mattice: I think we’ve been going this way already, but now with the pandemic and everybody opening their homes up to their coworkers and clients because we can see what’s happening in the background, in their living room or wherever they are, I think work-life balance is going to evolve.

I think work-life balance used to be you go to work and then you can go home and not think about work anymore and there was this divide between these two worlds, but now work and life—and we were already going this way because of social media and the internet and the fact that we can email on our phones and things—but, I think people are going to start to be the same person all of the time, if they aren’t already. Work-life balance isn’t going to mean you leave the office at 5:00 or 6:00 and then you turn it off. It’s going to mean that you weave your work and your life together in a way that works for you, which goes back to the hybrid.

We all have different rhythms in terms of when we’re most productive. I happen to be really productive between about 8:30 in the morning and 11:00 in the morning. I’m also really productive right after my kids go to bed, I can hammer out so much work in like two hours between 9:00 and 11:00 PM. Why not weave our lives together like that? Why have a cutoff, now you should go home and not think about work anymore? I think work-life is going to become more intertwined, in a good way.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: That’s interesting, not only what you said, but the way that you stated it. By that, I mean, it’s almost like it was a business card for you, explaining your preferred work style. The reason why I picked up on it is I’ve had a hybrid situation for probably about 15 years, so it was before the pandemic and this is my third job that I’ve had the opportunity to be between home and the office. I’ve always explained myself too in terms of, “Here are the times that I work best,” and they’re not always doing the regular office hours. However, if you want me to be creative and really push out some stuff, I’m more of a 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM in the morning, that just works for me.

But, what you said is what I hear a lot of mothers who are students, because that’s how they do their classes, we have online classes. It affects many different facets, not just the workplace. It’s like people begin to have that as their typical style.

What are your thoughts on the movement of people who want to be anywhere in the world? Because that would probably not work for the hybrid model because those individuals would not be able to go into the office. Do you think this is just a fad for the younger generations, or do you think this will take hold, just like the whole concept of remote working?

Catherine Mattice: I think you have a great point and I could see it moving in that direction. I guess if I’m being asked to predict the future, I think as we come out of the pandemic, whenever that is, that hybrid work will probably be the new norm.

But I could definitely see over time, as the younger generations fill into the workplace, that we may become more fully hybrid. The younger generations really want experience and they require that they feel good and happy because they have access to the internet. They’ve grown up being able to see what’s out there and that’s something we didn’t have before, you got your job and then you worked there and that’s what you did.

But that’s a great point, I could absolutely see it going that way, especially as technology continues to evolve. We’ve got Zoom on our laptops, maybe eventually technology allows us to, I don’t know, be a hologram in a meeting. I don’t know, but, yeah, I’m with you. I do agree with you, yeah.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: We’re talking about the positive aspects, but let’s go back to the story that you shared. What are we going to do with the toxic leaders? Because I’m sure they’ve become more toxic because they feel a sense of loss of control.

Catherine Mattice: Yes, I would agree. Actually, I have been watching a Google alert on the phrase “abusive conduct” and the searches on abusive conduct continue to go up. I get emails from Google saying the search for abusive conduct has gone up 120%, 223%, 550%. Remote work provides the ability to be toxic because if you’re in a Zoom with one other person, you can yell at them and be mean to them and no one else can hear. The isolated work facilitates that process, and high stress also facilitates bad behavior. We’re in a scenario right now that really facilitates ugly behavior.

There’s a couple things that you can do if there are toxic leaders. One is I actually specialize in leadership coaching or executive coaching for people who engaged in toxic behavior. They can change. I know anybody listening who feels they’ve been at the receiving end of toxic behavior, it’s definitely really easy to say, “That person treated me that way intentionally. There’s no way they could change, that’s just who they are.” And sometimes that’s the case. However, in my experience, coaching these individuals, again, what really to drives them is getting the job done, being seen as competent. Actually, they care very much about the organization, ironically.

Once you help them recognize that, “Hey, this is how you’re viewed. It’s not that people just think you’re hard to work with or you’re difficult, it’s that people live literally go home and cry, people have quit, they avoid you. Here’s the impact of the behavior that you’re displaying.” They’re often pretty upset about it, and it’s not like, “Oh, well I don’t care about that.” They definitely care very much that they’ve been so harmful. Through helping them see that, I’m able to help them develop new strategies for leadership. That’s one option, is coaching.

I do think, of course, if the CEO, for example, is allowing their Executive VP to act that way over a period of time, which is usually the case, they’ve been acting that way for two or three or five or 10 years, it can be hard to help that person recognize like, “Hey, you’ve been this way for a while now, but now we’re drawing a line, you can’t do that anymore.”

I always recommend that a consequence be in place. In fact, in my contract for coaching, I require the employer to initial a paragraph that says they have put a consequence in place. It’s really just to make it clear that, “Hey, I know I’ve allowed this for three or five or 10 years, but I’m just not anymore and to demonstrate that I’m going to put a consequence in place if the coaching doesn’t help you change.”

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I like that you added that part, because as I was listening to you, I actually had a question that had two parts, but by you adding that particular information, I think I can consolidate it to one question. It’s about where we are now. I was going to ask you about the influence of social media. Do you believe it’s been a part of why some individuals feel as though that they can just say anything, anywhere, to anybody? What are the effects of the popularity of the different social media platforms and how do we control that in the workplace?

Catherine Mattice: Like anything, if we are constantly exposed to things, they become more and more normal for us. So, yes, the types of behaviors we see online from our own friends who are engaging in yelling at us in our social media accounts, to the stories we see about politicians or the Hollywood industry, things become more and more normal for us. What happens is our tolerance for those things continues to go up.

If you have an individual who’s engaging in negative behavior, over time, as they’re allowed to do that, their tolerance for that behavior goes up. It becomes more and more normal to yell, it becomes more and more normal to send a nasty email. That’s part of why we need to nip that stuff in the bud early on, as opposed to letting it go on for three or five or 10 years.

I think the things that happen in social media do influence how we are at work. Your brain subconsciously feels that you’re anonymous if you yell at someone on social media. You’re looking at a screen, and logically you know people can see that it’s you, but for your subconscious and unconscious that’s not registering. There’s tons of research showing that we are much more aggressive online than we are in person.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yeah, so that actually happens in the classroom. I usually share the story because I’ve taught both on-ground in a classroom, physical classroom, and then online. I’ve shared stories how when things get out of control, if you are in a physical classroom, sometimes the instructor or facilitator can use body movements to control the class.

However, we have found online, it’s pretty much a free for all and it’s hard, especially if it’s an asynchronous environment, because comments can get out there before someone can control the situation. And that these type of behaviors have come from the workplace because they’re allowed to do that in their workplaces. It’s just like a catch 22 cycle. What are your thoughts on boundaries and filters? How can we start to educate people about the appropriate tone, conversations that are acceptable in our society? How do we pull the people back?

Catherine Mattice: I have a couple answers. One is I encourage managers and supervisors to have regular conversations about everybody’s expectations, not just, “Hey, manager, you should be setting expectations of behavior.” It’s a collaborative process.

For example, we have a job aid around facilitating a conversation about professionalism, because what does that word even mean? It’s very subjective. If you can talk to your team about the word professionalism and define examples of what it actually looks like and what it looks like when someone’s being unprofessional, those kinds of conversations will help to get everybody on the same page.

Another example is, I always do an exercise in webinars and trainings and things, where I ask people to type in the chat box, how do you want to be treated? Lots of people always put respect; that’s always an answer. Then I’ll ask the second question, well, what does respect mean? It’s subjective, what does that even mean? It’s interesting because depending on the company or the group, probably gender has something to do with it, I see different answers.

I had one webinar where the answer was clearly, from everybody, to be heard. If I feel like I’ve been heard and my opinion was valued, then that’s respect. That whole group, that was how they all defined respect, versus all the millions of other types of answers I’ve heard.

If managers can have those conversations regularly and proactively talk about a positive, thriving work environment, that will go a huge, huge way, because so often we’re focused on “Don’t harass, the corporate policy says you can’t do these things,” but we don’t proactively talk about what we do want. That’s one tip.

Secondly, from a more macro level, organizations themselves should be leaning into their core values. So often I go into toxic work environments where they have core values, but nobody knows them and they’re not used and so they’re not actually core values, they’re just words on the website.

Organizations would do well to really make it clear what those core values mean and how that translates into individual behavior and, for example, turning those core values into core competencies that are on the performance management system. The people in the customer service department, for example, are measured on their ability to problem solve for customers and their ability to engage in professional phone conversations, but that they’re also measured on how they treat at each other and how they live the core values. That’s another answer.

Then thirdly, I’ll just throw in, I have started to see some technology that you can, for example, attach to Slack. It will pull words and phrases that it sees and help you define your culture. For example, this technology might say, “We see the word enthusiastic a lot, so maybe that’s a core value to consider, there’s something going on with that word.” Or certainly the negative side too, “We see words that feel like harassing types of words,” and so that’s something to address, and, “Hey, those words are often being used in the chats in that particular department.” I think that probably will start to grab hold too, where you can gather what’s happening through technology like that.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I share your enthusiasm about incorporating some of these new techniques into our workplace, because I think it’s very important that we understand that we have diverse workplaces and it’s not a one-size-fits-all, that we’re going to have to incorporate a lot of different styles, techniques into our workplace because everyone has a certain need.

Keeping on that line, and it will probably be my last question to you: One of my concerns, and it’s actually why I had left the HR field, was that thin line between what I believe you are calling “bullying” and when people become violent. One of my biggest concerns in the workplace, especially with cultures, is that although they do not support bringing in a person’s personal life, I have always advocated you have to, at some level, because it helps you understand the whole person.

As a result, I have been a witness to a number of situations where people have been killed because of a loved one coming in, because of a domestic situation, or an employee who’s upset with their supervisor. I’ve always thought that could have been prevented if we saw the signs. What has been your work in that area?

Catherine Mattice: I totally agree with you. I’m going to give a little bit of a long answer here. Workplace bullying incorporates three buckets or categories of behavior. The first being aggressive communication, getting in someone’s personal space, yelling. I coached an individual where people described that he would rise up out of his chair slowly, and his chest would puff up, and his eyes would start to bulge, and although he wasn’t yelling or saying anything violent, the body language was creating fear for people in the room. That’s aggressive communication, sending off nasty emails, verbal threats, things like that.

The other two buckets are humiliation, leaving somebody out, or sarcasm or jokes or pointing out mistakes in public. And the third bucket is manipulation, doing things like sabotaging work or giving someone so much work they can’t possibly complete it. Those are the three buckets.

Going back to aggressive communication, those things I just described are workplace violence. Bullying and workplace violence are one and the same. That’s something that’s very frustrating for me when I go into organizations where I’m coaching, for example, you have this person who’s been creating fear and disrupting your safety, but you’ve allowed them to go on doing that because you think that they have a positive impact on the bottom line. But, to be clear, bullying is workplace violence. Again, the longer it goes on, the tolerance goes up and the more violent you can become over time.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I like that, that last phrase that you used. I never thought of it that way, it is workplace violence. I’m glad that you shared and broke it down that way, because we’re still getting feedback from different individuals as to how do you handle that type of situation? When you see it, whether you’re the supervisor or if you’re a coworker, who do you report it to, and is it appropriate? There’s concern on what should the employee do? So thank you so much for sharing that. Are there any closing words that you would like to leave for the audience?

Catherine Mattice: Sure, and thank you for having me, by the way. Here’s what I’d like to share. If you feel bullied, disrespected, like you’re not psychologically safe, like your dignity is not intact, that you’re being mistreated, then you have to consider your options.

I used to hesitate a lot more giving this advice, but I’ve seen so many damaging stories and I’ve talked to so many people who are just thoroughly destroyed by something that happened at work or the way they were treated for an ongoing period of time. Nobody can take care of your dignity like you can. And if you’re in a situation where you’re unhappy and you’re not getting what you need from your employer, you’re reporting things to HR and it’s not changing, then take the leap and find somewhere else to go.

If the organization doesn’t care about your dignity, you can’t care about them. I’m almost tearing up as I say this, because I just have seen and spoken to so many people who can’t function the way they used to because they have PTSD and they’re just so harmed by what happened to them. Take care of you, that’s my advice.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. Thank you for sharing that, too, because I believe a lot of people need to hear that. As you gave those points, I thought of a friend who went through something like that and it was unbelievable to me about how much of the situation was tolerated by the organization. If you had told me the story and I didn’t know the person, I wouldn’t have believed that it was possible to happen. We need more of you out there to help people, because a lot of people are suffering in silence.

Catherine Mattice: Well, thank you. I’d like to share one last thing. The third book that I have is called “Stand Up, Speak Out Against Workplace Bullying.” It’s actually 23 stories, mine included, of people who claim that they’re successful after having been through being bullied at work. I put out a call for stories, I wanted people to tell me about their success.

The one theme that you see in all 23 stories is that the decision was made, then that’s what changed the trajectory. These stories are about being bullied, you can see things going down and down and down, and then there’s this decision that’s been made and it changes the trajectory of their story. The decision sometimes is quitting.

One story is a woman who’s in the Coast Guard Academy, she’s a professor there. Her decision was to stay and fight. She felt that this was her calling and she’s going to put up with the way she’s treated in order to make it better for everyone else. That was her decision. For some people, it was deciding to finally report it to the union or to walk out. I want to put that out there, that the key to surviving this is to decide to take control back and that will change the course.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great, thank you for sharing that because it gives people a sense of hope that there is an opportunity to take their life back and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Catherine Mattice: Yeah, thank you.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Remember, you can find all three of Catherine’s books on Amazon.

Catherine Mattice: Yep, just search my name. My last name’s Mattice, M-A-T-T-I-C-E. I’ve got some great advice in those three books for solving workplace bullying.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: We have been speaking with Catherine Mattice. This is Marie Gould Harper thanking you for listening to our podcast today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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