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How a coach can deal with ‘inadvertent bullying’


Coaches have a duty to raise awareness of inappropriate behaviour, especially when it is unintentional, to stem the rising tide of bullying, says Alan Ward.

In a leadership workshop I was running recently, the conversation was drawn to the number of reality TV programmes and the now accepted aggressive style of giving feedback to contestants. The discussion was highly relevant to our content, in which we were raising awareness of the impact of our words and actions on the performance of others. Whilst forthright and personal comments may be very good for viewing figures on The Apprentice, X-Factor, Strictly, Dragon’s Den and so many other shows, is this type of behaviour becoming ’normalised’ and if so, what effect is it having in the workplace?

Not surprisingly, there were divided opinions within our group discussion. Whilst some believed that it was harmless and “just saying what everybody is thinking”, others felt that it was deeply personal and derogatory. Whilst not wishing to enter here into the psychology nor sociology of why these programmes are so popular (comments welcome, please!), I am interested in how coaches and leaders react to this trend.

This subject of giving hard-hitting feedback is particularly topical at the moment as it parallels a growing focus on bullying and harassment at work arising from accusations even from within 10 Downing Street. A Google search returns 1,800,000 links for “bullying at work” and I recommend John Pope’s latest TrainingZone article for a reassessment of the basics.


As clearly demonstrated in my leadership workshop, there are differing perceptions of what constitutes bullying. The Trades Union Congress suggests that bullying behaviour can include:

  • staff being constantly criticised

  • responsibilities removed or being given trivial tasks to do

  • shouting or persistently picking on people in front of others

  • ignoring or excluding individuals from work activities

  • setting a person up to fail by overloading them with work or setting impossible deadlines

  • regularly making the same person the butt of jokes

As a coach, it is my role to raise awareness of these behaviours so that individuals can then take responsibility for their words and actions. Often the response is either denial (not recognised) or dismissal (not important): none of my clients see themselves as bullies and would be quite horrified at the suggestion. Most commonly, it is not their intention to dominate or belittle colleagues but I observe numerous examples of isolated incidents, which in themselves appear quite innocuous.

Have you ever heard, or said, “I can’t get the staff, I’m surrounded by idiots” or perhaps heard someone called “a muppet”? Whether said in jest or on purpose, such comments will have a significant impact on the performance of the surrounding ‘idiots and muppets’. Other occasions arise from e-mail avalanches and the expectation that not only are they all read but also actioned, and yet what happens if something important slips through, especially if it involves high value? Blame, ridicule, punishment? I regularly remind clients of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” tale to highlight situations where everyone pretends for fear of appearing stupid or unfit for their position – sometimes it is the coach who has to cry out from the crowd. Hundreds of emails a day just might not be manageable.

One assignment involved me coaching a team for better performance. I was immediately struck by the content and nature of conversations within the group as being excluding to one individual, who was the latest recruit, a highly-qualified and competent lady from Nigeria. There were many references to previous projects, acronyms and even in-jokes that clearly carried significant meaning and some bearing on the work in hand, and yet no information was offered in explanation. During breaks, the main topic was the local sports team, again referred to by nicknames and assumed history. When I fed back to the group my observations and impact on me, they shrugged it off as inevitable but when I challenged them that this might also apply to someone within the group they were astounded. No malice, discrimination or exclusion intended, just complete lack of awareness.

Empathy for others

The question is whether the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning or unacceptable to the recipient. Guidance from ACAS [LINK to:] suggests that if an employee genuinely feels he/she is being singled out for unfair treatment by a boss or colleague, then feelings of anger and frustration at being unable to cope may be triggered.

Others may become frightened and demotivated. Stress, loss of self-confidence and self-esteem caused by harassment or bullying – whether deliberate or inadvertent - can lead to job insecurity, illness, absence from work, and even resignation. Some people may try to retaliate in some way. Almost always, job performance is affected and relations in the workplace suffer.

I have a personal experience from early in my working life. In an unusually quiet period, my manager presented me with a large box of mixed elastic bands and paper clips – the task: to separate and sort. After a while my manager remarked in public how I must learn to control my anger (because I was so red in the face). Actually, I was blushing with embarrassment at my colleagues gathered round to watch me doing such a menial job; I began to wonder if it was a punishment - if so, for what? From that day my boss was on “temper watch” in what I now understand through the concept of the Ladder of Inference.

Giving and receiving feedback

Whether in the role of coach, colleague or recipient, the first step is to raise awareness. I don’t believe that we can give feedback that is positive or negative. We can only give feedback: information that might be useful in helping improve performance. Most of the above examples involve judgement, opinion or subjectivity about the person (you are angry) rather than about the observation (you are very red in the face). A simple feedback tool is A. I. D. from Max Landsberg’s “Tao of Coaching”.

Actions: this is what I observed you say or do

Impact: The effect these actions are having

Desired Outcome: The ways in which you could do things more effectively

How fascinating would it be if this became the new style for reality TV judges? It might even improve ratings, if performance goes up correspondingly!

Alan Ward is a director of Performance Consultants, the coaching and leadership development specialist which runs university-backed coach education programmes accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.
He also chairs TrainingZone’s Coaching Discussion Group, a network of coaches and managers who coach and train managers who employ specialists. The group is a forum for questions and debate on all aspects of coaching, including qualifications, supervision, marketing, coaching methods and building a coaching business. 

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