People & Culture Essentials Videocast with Nicki Eyre at Conduct Change

David: What’s your story and how did you get to where you are now?

Nicki: I arrived here through my own experience of being bullied in the workplace. I was in a senior role when I was being bullied and went into a position of denial. I felt that I was being bullied but I also knew that I was successful, good at my job, and too strong to be bullied. I upped my performance and did what I could to prove to this person that I couldn’t be bullied. In hindsight, I was adopting some of their practices and behaviours to ensure that I kept my job. After about a year, I realised I need to address it. I first went to look at our anti-bullying policy and put absolute faith in the process. I found a trusted person to speak to and eventually decided that I should approach my alleged bully. I remember two things very clearly as a result of the conversation: a feeling of euphoria but also complete responsibility for the situation. Things improved for three weeks and then got significantly worse. I then went through the formal investigation process. This had been going on for a year – I had to go back, relive all those experiences in my mind, track the evidence, go through it again in an investigation, reinforcing trauma. My mental health was going downhill: going through this process affected me physically, psychologically and physiologically. It was too much. It took me six years to get back to full confidence and belief in myself and has probably cost me about half a million pounds. Looking back, I really did not understand what bullying was and how I needed to approach it.

David: How did you feel to be a human being stuck in that space?

Nicki: You feel trapped in a system that isn’t working. Initially you feel liberated but then you feel incredibly betrayed by everyone around you. You feel as if you can’t be heard, as if you’re invisible and making no sense. It’s an incredible sense of injustice.

David: The behaviour of managers in these cases is completely paradoxical to driving a high-performance organisation. Can you make sense of that approach?

Nicki: It doesn’t make any sense in my brain either. When there’s a pattern of this occurring, we need to understand why managers are protecting that person that is effectively damaging the organisation. What’s missing is real accountability. So few bullying complaints are upheld, showing an incredible lack of understanding.

David: Had mediation been an opportunity at an earlier stage of the process, what would you have said to your bully?

Nicki: The biggest issue in the relationship was about a real lack of communication between us. I felt like they never opened up.

David: You’re seeking that connectivity, insight and understanding. You talked about the systems protecting the wrong individual and consistently failing to deliver outcomes. What would you change in these systems to address this?

Nicki: Formal systems should be the absolute last resort. The first thing we need to do is educate people about bullying. Until organisations start recognising that behaviour should be a key area of risk management, they’re not going to reap the benefits of having positive behaviours within their organisational cultures.

David: Investing in people skills isn’t just about morals and ethics, they’re also the key to unlocking creativity, competitivity and potential. Business success absolutely relies on it.

Nicki: That social aspect must grow and develop, including how people are treated, because that will ultimately reflect on customers and investments. It’s so important to look at that bigger picture for organisational, personal and collective development.

David: I recently spoke at your global three-day United Workplace Against Bullying conference. How was it and what are some of your plans for the future in terms of spreading the word?

Nicki: Our social purpose is to change behaviours in the workplace so the conference is part of that. We had an amazing array of people, talking about everything about lessons learned from investigations to the psychosocial risks in the workplace, neuroscience, psychological safety and so forth. The belief that things need to change is really growing but there’s still a big gap for legislation. People have no protection unless they’ve been in an organisation for two years. I’ve been supported by some experts in the last year to draft for legislation and we’re going to be campaigning for that in the next year through my charity with a focus on prevention and early resolution.

David: What message would you give to HR and the people profession now about what changes they can be making to balance the need for legislation?

Nicki: Legislation is just one small part of a much wider process. I am a big fan of your Resolution Framework which has replaced our grievance policy. That shift in language and early approach has been really important. We shouldn’t be hanging everything on HR when the issues come from all other areas of the organisation: from leadership, management styles and lack of psychological safety. There needs to be a different way of working so that HR can have a more proactive role in developing people and culture from the outset.

David: What do you think organisations can be doing to create a psychologically safe workplace?

Nicki: I like to use Doctor Tim Clark’s definition of psychological safety which defines it as an environment of rewarded vulnerability. We have to allow people to reach a vulnerable stage. Leaders must role model these behaviours of humility and accountability which then trickles down to their colleagues. If people feel accepted, they feel they belong, they then learn quicker by observing and finally they feel able to contribute. When all these levels have been reached, people feel a sense of challenger safety: they feel safe to challenge without fear of retribution, allowing a lot of creativity and dialogue.

David: An inability to disagree well undermines those stages of psychological safety. The three Rs of “Recognise, Resolve and Recover” are really interesting – how do you think they might help support these changes?

Nicki: We do an audit of an organisation to see where they are on the journey to change. Firstly, they need to recognise the positive and negative behaviours within their organisation. Resolve is all about early intervention and whether current processes are working. Finally, if cases go to formal litigation, recovery is about organisational reputation and individual wellbeing.

David: The earlier we can bring trust in, the better we can prevent the final failure stage. What do organisations look like that have a high trust environment?

Nicki: Communication, first and foremost. You’ve got to be able to define the purpose of the organisation and allow people to align their personal values with this purpose. You also need to be transparent with people, particularly in times of change. Leaders must be modelling behaviours and allowing colleagues to speak up and speak out.

David: Words of wisdom! Give your people a jolly good listening to. Anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to share?

Nicki: In the foundation, we have our law change initiative and our Moving On programme to help those affected by bullying grow their confidence. In Conduct Change, we have our Charter for Change which is a consultancy to work with organisations to embed that three Rs model.

David: Final question: who or what inspires you?

Nicki: I’ve got to say my advisory board because they have all been so supportive and knowledgeable. I’m generally inspired by people who are values driven, prepared to stand up and make a difference.