Last week, I presented at a conference on the topic “Can a workplace bully change their spots?”

Being somewhat partial to audience participation, I started off with a poll and asked attendees this question “Do you think a bully can change his or her spots?” I am used to a bit of skepticism and vocal critics cries of no, but imagine my surprise when 87% responded with “Maybe, with the right supports put in place”, 13% “Yes, absolutely they can”. Not one person came back with “No, not a hope in hell”.

It was a win for human capacity to hope for the best.

Let me be honest. I am a “Yes” and “Maybe, with the right supports put in place”. I expect you would hope this is the case given that I specialise in coaching leaders who use abrasive or bullying type behaviours. I have found that some can change and some can’t.

The truth is, unless you provide the individual the opportunity for change, then you just don’t know.

Psychopathy – The popular theory

A popular theory that continues to be forwarded is that all bullies are psychopaths and, therefore, can’t change. However, my experience is that this is not true. People who use bullying type behaviours are not all homogeneous.

Some bullies are on the clinical or non-clinical scale of psychopathy. Most of us are not skilled or qualified to make that diagnosis. The challenge is that there is little evidence based research that links all or the majority of workplace bullying to psychopaths.

One of the few evidence based studies that has been completed by researcher Clive Boddy over a decade ago, indicated in Australia 1% of people (corporate psychopaths) accounted for at least 26% of all bullying. When repeated in the UK it was 1% of people (corporate psychopaths) accounted for at least 36% of all bullying. This leaves a big gap in evidence based data for defining who is responsible for the balance of workplace bullying behaviour.

Workplace bullying specialist psychologist, Evelyn Field, reports that any of us can be bullies depending on the time, place and circumstance. This is consistent with my experience of bullies by circumstance. They becomes swept up in the culture and behaviours of those around them.

The question of whether bullies can change is also contradicted by the experience of Laura Crawshaw, who over 30 years has coached approximately 400 abrasive leaders, reports an 80% success rate in achieving positive behavioural change.

Three Essentials to Influence Bullies to Change

However, abrasive or bullying leaders can’t change alone. They require you, as their employer, to implement certain steps. There are three essential steps as follows.

  1. Set limits
    You need to tell the individual “The way you interact with others has to change.”
  2. Set consequences
    “Failure to do so will result in…”
  3. Offer help
    People who use abrasive and bullying behaviour can’t change alone. The behaviour may commonly originate from normalised behaviours they have learned over their life time to their current situation. Internal mentoring or specialised external coaching is required to help the individual change.

Successful change relies on intervention. The earlier you act when you notice an employees bullying abrasive behaviour, the better the outcome.

Learn more about our Abrasive Leader Specialist Coaching Program

Contact us today for a confidential discussion on how we can help you prevent and manage workplace bullying.