Could KiVa, the successful anti-bullying programme for schools, work in your boardroom?


According to a recent piece in The Economist (Oct 6), Christina Salmivalli of the University of Turku in Finland formulated an anti-bullying programme for schools called KiVa, the Finnish word for “nice”, with “promising results …in Finland and around the world…[with] steep drops in the numbers reporting themselves bullied.’

The core of the programme is “to encourage bystanders to intervene. The main motivation for bullying is the drive for social status. By teaching bystanders to speak up …the social rewards of bullying can be reduced”.

Since there’s little difference in the bullying I have observed over the last 54 years between school and work, especially in the boardroom, my question is whether this or other anti-bullying systems might work in the boardroom?

But it’s fair to ask: who cares? What difference does it make how people behave so long as results are “delivered’? Are we not all grown-ups? Should we not be able to “take care of ourselves…man (woman) – up…be resilient…suck it up”? School is school. Work is work.

I don’t buy any of these arguments.

The prevalence of bullying in the workplace is as ubiquitous as it is in schools. The Economist article presents shocking data on the extent of bullying in schools across the globe, with a few notable exceptions, e.g. Sweden.

Think about it. That means hundreds of thousands of children go to school every day, petrified.

And so too do adults. The recent #metoo, rogue surgeons, and corporate collapse stories (e.g. Carillion, RBS etc.) have at their heart institutionalised bullying. And I meet these “petrified” adults regularly in my practice.

They may not use the word petrified. But they are. You can easily tell by their language and body language. For example: “X on our board doesn’t suffer fools..”.

Leadership is about clarity. Coded language is unclear. The “not suffering fools” cliché is just code for outright bullying and contains subtle implicit awe which is chilling. As Dan Hammond of leadership consultancy LIW says “The status of ‘fool’ is in the eye of the beholder and is often granted to people who disagree with us.”

As you read this, do you see yourself as the bullied, the bully or the bystander? Or are you wondering what all the fuss is about and why can’t people be “resilient”? The latter is one of the most abused words in business, second only to strategy. The word has been hijacked to mean “get a grip” instead of “build inner strength”.

And when you were at school were you the bullied, the bully or the bystander? I wager that whatever mode you followed in the schoolyard you are likely to be still applying in the boardroom.

Or if not, are you behaving in a manner which is a reaction to your formative years’ experiences? So if you were bullied in youth, you might have decided, with a bitter determination that “no one, but no one is going to walk over me again”.

And If you are a total bully in the boardroom, you will know it. 360 feedback will have seen to that. But you will find ways of rationalising that on the basis that “it’s the goal that counts”.

If you are a total bully in the boardroom, the chances are that in emotional intelligence terms your empathy levels are low. You just can’t put yourself in the shoes of “the other” and imagine how awful they must be feeling, possibly because in your early years you got many a “kicking and bollocking” and had to put up with it.

In truth, we all bully to a greater or lesser extent. And I have had success in helping people, including myself, reduce bullying tendencies. But in my work, I have never managed to turnaround a hardened “total bully,” i.e. someone who’s default behaviour is threatening.

My “small change programme” which works on the principle of changing ten interactions in every hundred – just 10% change – fails with them. They’re not interested. My model doesn’t pass their incentive test.

They might say: “Why the “f**k should I change when I can get what I want by sheer force of my personality? And my bullying works. I’ve got to the top of this business or near the top because when push comes to shove I deliver. And all your namby-pamby small change b***ocks just doesn’t cut it. ”

Indeed. But while I have failed to turnaround “total bullies” I have managed to change the behaviour of their colleagues towards them. The adage that if you want another person to change then, you have to change first is correct.

This links with the KiVa programme in schools, which relies on the collective courage of “bystanders” to intervene. And it works.

And you know it can work in your boardroom too. So why don’t you join forces with your colleagues and face down the bully on your board?

Or not. It’s your choice. Think about the opportunity cost to you and others. And also think about the reality that, as all the case studies prove, bullying as a “talent management strategy” does not work over the long term.

It isn’t sustainable. It reduces both performance and capability. So what you need is not “resilience” but courage and the support of colleagues.

Or are you a total bully?

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