Workplace bullying: Can a leopard change its spots?

A recent Australian Association of Workplace Bullying Professionals (AAWBP) seminar discussed leadership bullying and the issues around whether those found to be bullies can (or are willing to) change and adapt.

Traditional bullying can be described as a power-based control method, although there has been anecdotal evidence that upwards bullying is on the rise, particularly during COVID. Read the blog on upward bullying here.

Even vaccination bullying (or anti-vax bullying) is now a problem faced by many organisations. Read the blog on this type of bullying here.

So, can an accused bully change their behaviour for the better? Can and will the bullying stop? Often, the person that uses bullying behaviors hasn’t learnt to work it through. They often put the issue back onto the employer. Not enough staff, bad systems, no training, incapable subordinates, too much pressure from above, personality differences…the list of excuses goes on.

“Prevention and earlier education are the key” says Michael Plowright, a workplace bullying expert.

Specialist bullying investigator, Gregory Lamey of the Forensix Group, notes that good leaders keep a look out for bullying signs and address concerns before they get bigger and more problematic. “Having necessary informal conversations can often stop the snowball effect,” Mr Lamey said. Often, independent investigators are called in at a late stage, where those involved are subject to long (and expensive) investigative processes. “This can have a significant impact on psychological welfare, morale and the work environment,” Mr Lamey said. 

Informal and formal complaints are also important to identify and deal with. Staff may show indicators that there is a behaviour escalating, and there is a need to intervene.

HR Managers should keep an eye on turnover, sick leave and exit information. These are warning signs and need to be acted upon.

Supervisors and managers also need to be aware of “microaggressions,” that can be an indicator to deeper issues. Read the blog on microaggressions here.

How can we help a bullying leader change? Michael Plowright identifies the following ways:

  • Set aside existing belief systems. People who use bullying behaviours can change
  • Show empathy. There is a need to approach a person with empathy if change is required
  • Develop trust. The alleged bully needs to be able to trust what they say will be taken into account and considered
  • Limits and consequences need to be set. Sometimes formal warnings need to be given
  • Offer help. Behaviours by the bullying offender may not be seen as abnormal by them and may be (or have been) normalised.

The question on whether a bully – once identified and managed – can continue working in the same team (or even at the same location) is one that offers different responses. With careful consideration and training/mentoring/guidance and support, someone exhibiting bullying behaviours can change, if given the chance.

And they probably should be. Of course, those unwilling to change should be dealt with in a procedurally fair and transparent manner, which may lead to more severe consequences.

The key takeaways are:

  • Keep a careful lookout for non-baseline behaviour
  • Communicate expectations clearly and often (verbal and written)
  • Seek open and honest communication
  • Address issues immediately, have the difficult conversations and document everything
  • Provide support to those accused of bullying and offer the chance to change


  • Protect the bullying victim (which will be the next blog post)

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