Mediation for Bullies?

© 2010 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

There is increasing discussion these days of whether or not mediation can be useful in cases of workplace bullying. On the one hand, it seems like a very bad idea. Why expose the target of a bully to further bullying in the context of “getting along?” We know that family courts often don’t require victims of domestic violence to meet with their batterers to negotiate parenting plans as “equals” in parenting mediation. On the other hand, if someone is going to continue to be in the same workplace with another employee, wouldn’t it be a good idea to try to improve communication and daily life procedures as much as possible?

Perhaps this isn’t a clear-cut Yes or No answer. As with many issues, there are several factors to consider in answering these questions. I believe that there are two types of bullying situations to consider – in one type there wouldn’t be mediation and in the other there could be.

Many Bullies Can’t Change

First of all, I struggle with referring to people as “bullies” versus calling them “people who engage in bullying behavior.” Let’s agree, for the sake of this discussion, that I mean people who engage in bullying behavior, even if I slip up and say bullies occasionally. I really do believe that this does not define a whole person and that we need to avoid turning anyone into a hateful object.

One of the characteristics of bullying behavior is that it is a pattern of hurtful behavior or blatant cruelty that creates fear in the target, including physical symptoms, lost work, and lost productivity. It’s not just one incident or a misunderstanding or innocent behavior. People with such patterns of behavior often have personality disorders. This means that they are stuck in limited patterns of behavior that have existed since childhood or adolescence, lack self-awareness of the affects of their behavior on others, and are unlikely to change with ordinary negative feedback. They have heard it for years and it hasn’t caused their behavior to improve.

Understanding that bullying is a pattern of behavior, can this pattern of behavior change with enough pressure? For some bullies, the answer is “No,” because they lack the ability to change. This is a characteristic of many people with personality disorders. Their brain wiring was never developed for the necessary self-control that it would take to totally stop bullying behavior just because it is a “good idea.” They need to develop a pattern of self-restraint that usually is learned in childhood – but wasn’t. This is often because of being abused or entitled as a child. Bullies tend to have a sense of entitlement as adults, some justifying their entitlement because of a history of being abused and others who simply learned to feel entitled from early childhood on into adulthood.

While self-restraint can be learned for some in adulthood, it takes more than a reprimand – just like learning sobriety for a life-long addict takes a program of change usually taking many years to establish and stabilize. Someday there will be many programs of change for those with personality disorders, but at this time there are very few – but there are some, with encouraging results. The problem is that denial-of-having-a-problem is a core characteristic of people with personality disorders. They resist any treatment that would actually help them, and instead continue to sabotage themselves. Those without such self-restraint may develop into bullies.

The question in a workplace is: Is this person capable of change soon enough to make a difference in their behavior in the workplace? If not, would it be better to move this person out of this particular division, or even out of the organization all together? To answer these questions, lets look at the other type of bully.

The Environment Matters

Some people who engage in bullying behavior may have traits of a self-sabotaging personality, but they wouldn’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis of personality disorder. They may be more able to vary their behavior, and they may be highly influenced by their environment. In other words, high-conflict environments may bring out their negative, bullying behavior, while low-conflict environments bring out their more positive behavior.

Some examples of high-conflict environments are those divisions or organizations with leadership who have high-conflict personalities themselves and encourage inappropriate joking, blaming, personal insults, sudden changes in work assignments and other impulsive behavior with no logical basis – just that they can get away with it because they are in leadership positions. Some organizations reward such behavior, which makes it unsafe for anyone to just relax and focus on their work – because they have to focus on protecting themselves. In such high-conflict environments, bullies thrive and get away with (or are rewarded for) highly aggressive and intimidating behavior.

Other workplaces have a high-conflict environment because they have leadership that takes a very passive or avoidant approach. The manager or managers are really nice people, but they hesitate to intervene and take action against bullying behavior. They minimize the effect of such behavior and encourage targets to simply deal with it themselves. They may be in denial or have their own personality issues. They don’t recognize the seriousness of the situation or don’t really know how to handle it. This allows bullying behavior to grow instead of being restrained.

Examining and changing the organizational culture and getting more training may help leaders and managers create a more low-conflict environment. Sometimes a key person or two may need to leave. I am aware of many instances of this happening, then the environment got much better. In school bullying, the lesson learned over the past decade is that the whole community needs to support and promote an anti-bullying culture for it to really be effective. I believe that one person can’t stop bullying – especially not the target. It takes a village to stop bullying behavior.

Some Bullies Can Change

In a low-conflict environment, those bullies who can change will change – they will have to, because their bullying behavior will not be tolerated – and because they have some ability to change. A clear policy of consequences and procedures for bullying behavior will make it matter-of-fact, and not simply a new game of get-the-bully instead of get-the-target.

A series of progress discipline steps appears to be the most appropriate. At the lowest level, the bully receives a talk by a supervisory person who can combine carrot and stick motivation for dealing with the bullying behavior. This could include taking an anger management class, conflict resolution class, counseling sessions, coaching session or some other low-level, beneficial skills-building approach. The supervisory person can focus on future behavior and the desire to have the employee succeed to the best of his or her ability. Many people with traits of personality disorders seem to do well if they feel a genuine connection with the person disciplining them. The focus can be on the positive, while emphasizing the consequences of not changing the bullying behavior.

Mediation as Separate from Consequences

After or concurrent with the consequences for bullying behavior, mediation may be appropriate – if it seems that the bully is making efforts to change behavior. Just as in Victim-Offender Reconciliation Programs, a direct mediation dialog that is well-structured may bring new awareness to those who are capable of awareness. This may provide an opportunity for the bully to practice more reasonable behavior and also provide the target with an opportunity to feel empowered to set some limits and discuss modifications of their working relationship that would make it feel more productive. The key element of such mediation is that:

1) It is separate from the issue of a consequence. In other words, there would not be any negotiation of punishment for the bullying behavior. That would be dealt with first by the appropriate supervisory person. Then, if there was evidence of an effort to change, then mediation could be appropriate – so long as the target felt it would be beneficial. The target could also have some coaching about how to deal with the bully, if desired.

2) The mediation would be well-structured and pre-choreographed, so that positive behaviors would be the focus and bullying behavior would be prevented. The focus would be on the future working relationship and how to make it most comfortable and productive. In general, this could be brief, structured and not open-ended. By making consequences for bullying a separate, prior condition for mediation, I believe that some cases of bullying can benefit from mediation. Such an approach can shift the focus from shame and blame of the person to specific behavior, and to more positive future behavior. By having a supervisor give encouragement to the bully, while also initiating clearly-defined progressive discipline steps, it may be possible to bring out the best in him or her. People with personality disorders and traits seem to need a lot of encouragement to make even small efforts to change. Shame and blame tend to lock in the person’s negative, defensive behavior.

If specific consequences do not have any impact, then mediation would not be appropriate and management may have the information necessary to realize that this person cannot change. It may be necessary to move such a person out of the organization in order to protect the organization, as well as the target.


An organization that gives bullies opportunities to learn and change, and then follows through with removing those who do not change, will give employees a sense of safety and the ability to focus on their work. An organization that will also provide an opportunity for those who are willing to make changes to discuss improvements with coworkers in mediation may give employees a sense of hope – that problems can be recognized, addressed, and resolved for the future. With this type of approach, I believe mediation can be a useful tool in some cases of workplace bullying. We welcome your feedback on this difficult subject.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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