The workplace bully and those who use abrasive behaviours are steeped in negative stereotypes from psychopaths and narcissists to just plain evil. The myth that is perpetuated is that they are all the same who can’t change. Therefore, the only solution is termination of their employment. But this is rhetoric we need to challenge.
To achieve change, those who bully need appropriate support to help them. This support needs to focus on what their perceived negative behaviours are and the impact of that behaviour on others. However, an important part of that process is to get them to refocus their attention both internally and externally to successfully facilitate that change. An important question is, what role does attention and focus play in modifying a bully or abrasive individual’s behaviour?
Understanding Attention and Focus
The work of Dr Amishi Jha, professor of psychology has extensively researched how our brains work in regards to attention, working memory and mindfulness. Her work helps us to understand the role of attention, and it’s sub-process of focus, in our day-to-day lives.
Attention is an umbrella term for the brains capacity to prioritise some information over other information. Focus is a sub-process that sits under attention. It allows us to prioritise some things over others based on the content of the thing that has our attention. Our thought process privileges our focus over everything else and, therefore, we get crisper, clearer, higher integrity information over everything else.
Jha uses the metaphor of a flashlight to highlight her meaning. Where you shine the flashlight has the privileged focus over everything else.
Focus has a range of characteristics. This includes that:
- it is finite in that other information or sources become closed off when focusing on one thing over everything else
- it can be pulled and yanked in multiple directions
- it can be directed externally or internally via our internal orienting system
- other outside influences allow us to go back and forth.
A key to what she says is that “In order to remember something, you have to have paid attention to it”. She states that often what we think is a memory problem, is often an attention problem.
Emotions Connection to Attention
Jha states that we need attention to both feel and experience emotion. Importantly attention also allows us to regulate emotion. It is these facts about emotion and attention that allow us to create connection with others. To be able to shine our flashlight on others is what allows them to feel cared for and understood. Attention is the glue that allows people to care, feel compassion and collaborate.
Attention is Vulnerable
However, attention is fragile and vulnerable. It is negatively impacted by:
- stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed
- threat, not just physical safety, but to reputation, a sense of justice and one’s moral sense
- negative mood
The Link Between Attention and Support a Workplace Bully to Change
In coaching leaders who use bullying and abrasive behaviours in the workplace, we have learnt that fear is often at the heart of that behaviour. As children, bullying and abrasive leaders have lack love, attention and not had the opportunity to develop healthy coping skills. In it’s place, they develop coping and compensation methods which they practice and refine during their school years. Those strategies are taken with them into the workplace, often without consequence. Their behaviour has had a life time of normalisation. They often don’t see, and are surprised, to learn their team or peers don’t view their behaviours in a positive way.
Shining the torchlight and focusing on their abrasive behaviours becomes key to helping them change. To help them change, their attention needs to be both internal and external. Internally, their torchlight needs to focus on what they are feeling and experience the emotion, to understand their own barriers to change. Externally, they need to pay attention and focus on how their behaviours make others feel, thereby creating connection, so instead of feeling bullied, they are feeling listened to and cared for.
Focusing their flashlight both internally and externally allows them to develop new strategies to respond and behave resulting in a safer and more productive workplace.
However, this research into attention gives us important insights into what can hinder success. Challenging a bully’s abrasive behaviour is often seen as a threat by that individual. Given that attention is vulnerable to stress and perceived threat, creating an environment of safety to focus their attention on that change is paramount.