Bully-free workplace culture starts from the ground up

Every member of the school staff, whether they be principal, executive staff member, support staff or teacher has a leadership role in eliminating workplace bullying. This can be achieved by everyone building a positive and supportive workplace culture where bullying is recognised for what it is and is eliminated, write Dan Riley, Deirdre J Duncan and John Edwards of Workplace Bullies Research.

Importance of distributed leadership in tacking bullying

In combating bullying of staff, a vital factor is leadership. We suggest this is not just formal leadership such as that exercised by the Principal but what is necessary is that everyone should exercise leadership i.e. it is distributed across the school. The value of this kind of leadership in relation to bullying of staff is the fact that it is about the exercise of leadership rather than about leaders and their roles. It is leadership based on how people interact with each other regardless of whether they are support staff, teachers, department heads or the principal etc. So it is how staff show leadership in any situation in which they find themselves that matters. This allows us to take account of the context in which we find ourselves.

A pertinent question becomes ‘How is this related to the elimination of bullying of staff?’ Firstly it is related to the culture of the school, as leadership that is distributed across the school requires a change in culture away from the ‘top down’ model of leadership, to one where everyone takes on responsibility for ensuring the culture is one that is bully-free. It also requires a climate of trust and collaboration, both of which, if genuinely achieved, leave no room for bullying of staff. If everyone takes on a leadership role, in the sense of it being distributed across the school, it should lead to a supportive and connected workplace culture where the dignity and worth of each staff member is respected and bullying is non-existent.

Results of a 2013 IEU survey on distributed leadership and supportive culture

A recent survey we conducted for the IEU assessed to what extent a distributed leadership committed to building a bully-free workplace culture in schools was evident in the 25 schools surveyed. Such a distributed leadership is listed as the first of nine elements within the National Framework for Building a Bully-free Workplace Culture in Schools. (See www.schoolbullies.org.au/NationalBullyfreeFramework.pdf.)

Of the 31 indicators in the survey, six of them tested for evidence of a distributed leadership committed to a bully-free workplace culture. Disappointingly, only two of the six indicators showed any evidence that the notion that a distributed leadership was present in schools. The remaining four indicators left little doubt that respondents could not see any evidence for it. This strongly suggests that building a distributed leadership in schools is a high priority for staff wishing to achieve a bully-free workplace culture.

A further four indicators in the survey tested for evidence of a supportive and connected workplace culture which has zero tolerance for staff bullying. Such a supportive and connected culture is listed as the second of nine elements within the National Framework for Building a Bully-free Workplace Culture in Schools.

Encouragingly, three of the four indicators show a strong degree of support from respondents that positive, respectful and supportive relationships exist among staff. Ironically, the missing ‘element’ from the environment was evidence that the school exhibited zero tolerance for bullying. The implication of this being that either schools tolerate bullying of staff or perhaps even that bullying of staff exists within them. Clearly, zero tolerance must be a stated and agreed upon aim within a school if it is to be achieved, which suggests that a degree of planning and a coordinated program, such as adopting the National Framework, are needed.

Strengthening distributed leadership and building a supportive and connected workplace culture

To focus the efforts of all members of a school to establish and maintain a bully-free culture, there needs to be achievable objectives which resonate with those involved. For leaders distributed across our schools these achievable objectives are stated in the nine components of Element 1 of the National Framework for a Bully-free Workplace in Schools. These include acceptance by staff to maintain a bully-free workplace culture, a clear vision of what a bully-free workplace culture is, staff planning to sustain the vision and implement it, and awareness of the forms of staff bullying as it occurs in schools and so on.

These leaders, wherever they are located within the school, who have this crucial knowledge have the power to bring about change to existing practice. It will take time, commitment and monitoring, but the process and its achievement will bring untold rewards.

Change is not easily achieved unless individuals make a difference in their daily behaviour.

To help distributed leaders build a supportive and connected workplace culture, a further seven components or steps are identified in Element 2 of the National Framework for a Bully-free Workplace in Schools – A supportive and connected workplace culture. For such leaders the challenge is not just to ‘talk the talk’ but actually to ‘walk the talk.’ That is, it is not a matter of ‘do as I say’ rather than ‘do as I do!’ It is common knowledge that one is judged not by what one says but by what one does.

As members of a school our professional values are displayed everyday as we give witness to what we are committed to. If we accept that we are individuals of character focused upon enhancement of our school and that each of us is a leader committed to the establishment and maintenance of a bully-free culture, then these two elements of the National Framework detail a way forward to achieve our objective of having a bully-free workplace culture.

Steps to a bully-free workplace

Having a bully-free workplace at school requires more than simply putting up a sign saying “No bullying of staff allowed!” - although doing so is perhaps not a bad start. But it is only a start, for what is further required is building a bully-free workplace culture and that requires all staff to be involved.

It also requires a leadership that is not only shown by all but shared by all - a distributed leadership whose objective is a bully-free workplace culture. How to achieve this is set out in the nine elements of the National Framework for Building a Bully-free Workplace Culture in Schools. The first two elements, to get the ball rolling, are a distributed leadership and a supportive and connected workplace culture.

This is the challenge set before schools which the Framework helps them to achieve as it sets out concisely, in 41 components or steps, what is needed to get there. When it comes to achieving a bully-free workplace culture it is very much the case that many hands make light work, both in giving leadership on striving for a bully-free culture and in articulating a clear vision of what
that entails.