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Workplace bullies – are you one of them?

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“There are a lot of jerks in the workplace,” says Stanford professor Bob Sutton. For his research he has been sent some 8,000 emails that detail the range of disrespect and intimidation in the office, and the destruction they cause. Good leaders figure out how to fix their teams and organisations; and they start by taking a long look in the mirror, he writes.

Dysfunctional behaviour often happens in the moment, against our better nature. Few of us want to be jerks, and most leaders care about the people and institutions in their charge.

Here are five tips for top executives who aim to treat others with respect.

1. Beware of contagion. Bad behaviour is so contagious. If you are leading a company, where cruelty, backstabbing, and selfishness abound, you are likely to start behaving like that, too. Think about whether that is the kind of person you want to be, the effects on you and those you care about, and possible remedies (including making a clean getaway).

2. Watch how you use your influence. Wielding power over others increases the risk you’ll start treating others like dirt. Regardless of how kindly, cooperatively, and empathetically you’ve acted in the past, power can cause you to be less kind. One antidote is practicing humility, giving credit to less powerful people, deferring to those who are less prestigious or wealthy than you, and doing them favours. “Remember, too, that just because you are the boss doesn’t mean you have more power (or insight) than your reports”, writes Sutton.

3. Understand the risks of overload . . . and technology addiction. Being in a rush, having too much to do, and having too many distractions can turn even the most civilized person into a jerk – a  CEO’s workload makes him or her especially susceptible to this disease. Multitasking, checking emails, and using smartphones probably contribute to overload even more than unnecessary meetings. “When it comes to overcoming such electronic temptations,” says Sutton, “leaders need to exercise self-control and nudge others to do likewise.”

4. When you behave like a jerk, apologize . . . but do it right. A thoughtful apology can help reduce your target’s pain and repair your relationships, “and provoke soul-searching that enables you to learn from your transgressions,” says Sutton. A good and effective apology acknowledges fault, accepts full responsibility for what happened, tries to explain why it happened, and commits you to personal change. But if “you find yourself apologizing again and again, it’s time to stop. It’s probably a sign that you are using apologies as a substitute for learning and toning down your act.”

5. Do a little time travel. “This mind trick is among my favourites for bringing out the best, and stifling the worst, in leaders,” claims Sutton. It entails deciding what to do today based on how you want to feel about yourself when you look back from the future.

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