Consequences need to be clearly defined and then followed through on.
Q: I’ve been actively managing a bully on my team. I’ve documented her behavior, met with her and HR, had candid talks with her, and set action plans. She’s giving lip service to changing her behavior, but her actions don’t always match. She is a highly skilled analyst so I would hate to lose her. How much leash should I give her and how do I determine whether she is trying hard enough? — Andrea, 44, director, R&D
A: You have laid the groundwork; now it’s time to stay the course. The steps you have taken have not been easy. Most people avoid confrontations. Yet, at least it’s a situation that is fairly clear-cut with a definite issue to address.
Now you are in more of a gray area. As you have noted, it’s hard to assess motivation and, I would argue, to an extent it doesn’t matter. If she is continuing to behave badly toward others, even if she doesn’t mean to, the impact is the same.
Then, if you tolerate it, you are in essence condoning her abusive behavior. And don’t forget — the team is watching.
The fact that you are already concerned is a bit of a red flag. To see if you have really set up a sufficiently rigorous and protective approach, revisit the action plan. What are the steps you have set up? A strong plan should address both the past and the future.
To start, does the plan include apologies and reparations to people she has harmed? If she has never had to own up to her past behavior, hear about the damage she has done and understand the reasons it is a problem, any remorse she is showing may be merely skin deep.
How specific is the plan about her behavior? It should describe the type of verbal, nonverbal or even physical actions you expect her to avoid. Consider, too, defining the positive behaviors you expect to see.
Consequences need to be clearly defined and then followed through on. Slippage here will undermine your credibility and enable the bullying, including from others.
At the same time, you want to create an environment in which she can earn your trust. This will require an investment of your time and attention.
Be prepared for frequent meetings (at least weekly, at first). Sit in on meetings and get cc:ed on e-mails so that you can catch relapses or improvements. Also get feedback from colleagues to get a full picture.
Then be sure she gets feedback as close to real-time as possible. Provide it yourself, being direct about what you have observed or been told. Then ask for her perspective; she needs to learn to recognize her own patterns in action in order to change.
Help your team members learn how to call her out in the moment, as well; it will be a good skill to have and will help enforce a zero tolerance environment.
There must be an end game. If, despite what she says, the behavior remains, put your team first. She needs to know that the human side outweighs any technical skills she brings. And if she must leave, the loyalty you will engender will more than pay off in the end.