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Perception vs Reality: in pursuit of the truth

Perception: the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted.

Reality: the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.

When conducting complex investigations (and mediations) in regards to bullying, harassment, mistreatment, etc, the notion of perception vs reality inevitably arises with the respondent saying things such as “I didn’t mean it like that” or “I didn’t say those words” and witnesses commenting “that’s not what happened, this is what happened”. Whether conducting a workplace investigation or not, we have all heard these words in our personal and professional lives and it is human nature to understand what actually happened.

The human mind is such that we see and hear what we want to hear to fit our reality which is not unusual, we all do it. The difference is what we do with this information. As a HR professional who conducts workplace investigations and mediation for a living, I come across the battle between perception and reality almost daily. It is my job however, to unpick the truth that lies between the two as part of the investigation or mediation process, and it is probably the most difficult task as it is not always so clear cut.

Within the mediation situation we get to this point quite quickly with both sides explaining things how they see it and working through them. With an investigation however, there is more complexity involved. This is where we rely on the “balance of probability”, which is to consider whether, on balance of the evidence gathered, an act or situation occurring was more likely than not. What you are doing here is assessing the evidence and making a judgement on whether you believe something happened and justifying why. To get to the truth it is imperative that the following things happen throughout the investigation process:

  1. In-depth questions are asked of the claimant to deeply understand their perceptions and realities;
  2. In-depth questions are asked of the respondent and witnesses to understand their perceptions and realities;
  3. Evidence is sought and collected to back-up what the claimants, respondents and witnesses have said – remember that even the art of written communication can be misconceived and can play into perception and reality;
  4. An objective view is taken on each complaint and evidence weighed up when making a finding.

A little while ago I posted about an investigation being conducted about the mistreatment of gymnasts, and there have recently been more people coming forward with their stories. This is a key case where getting to the truth is imperative to the future of the sport, where many investigation meetings will need to take place. There will be variations of stories, some vague and some detailed. The balance of probability will be relied upon here, so it will be interesting to see what the verdict is.

The main objective of an investigation is therefore to consider what the perception of the claimant was and whether this was in fact reality and truth, and whether on balance, the act occurred.

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Mistreatment of gymnasts: bullying which has far reaching consequences. Investigation is key to getting to the heart of the problem

If you know me, you know that I am a gymnastics mum to two budding gymnasts, so you won’t be surprised that I have been following the news of mistreatment of gymnasts with great interest. If you have not been following this story, the essence of it is that there have been complaints from gymnasts about a culture of fear and emotional and mental abuse. Some of the examples given were about being told they were fat, being forced to compete or train with injuries or being sat on until they were flat on the floor when sitting in splits. For obvious reasons this is concerning.

Gymnastics is about perfection and therefore not a forgiving sport, but this does not give reason for coaches to mistreat their gymnasts for best results and competing power, this to me is bullying. Bullying is the use of force, coercion or threat, to abuse, aggressively dominate or intimidate. The behaviour is repeated and habitual.

While I am aware that historically gymnasts were treated this way (and I know this from previous gymnasts), I do not consider this normal, nor do I condone it – now or then. If we look at the definition of bullying, the behaviour described by the gymnasts is exactly that, and it needs to stop. The consequences of treating gymnasts in this way has been long-term mental health conditions, eating disorders, dropping out of the sport, reputational risk. This is why I am glad that they have finally spoken, but I do wonder why it has taken so long. Was this due to fear of being dropped from the squad, club or coach, fear of not being able to compete, being pushed harder than they could cope with? What strikes me is that whether you are in the workplace or not, the fear of raising issues is real and we are not providing safe places for individuals to raise their concerns because of how they have been handled in the past (or perceived to have been).  

British gymnastics have quite rightly chosen to step away from the investigation to allow for a completely independent review of the situation and get to the heart of the problem. Was this the right choice? 100%, because it allows for a non-biased, impartial investigation based on evidence and clear facts, and I would expect nothing less. An independent party will have no prior knowledge of the people involved or the concerns raised, which gives a sense of relief to those raising a complaint as they often feel that an internal person will not be impartial. Independence therefore allows them to air their concerns in a safe place without consequence.

There have been complaints about the length of time the investigation is taking, with the first complaint having been made in December 2019. A large-scale investigation such as this would take long, especially to ensure all the facts are investigated and appropriate recommendations made. The common misconception is that an investigation does not take long, when in fact if you do it thoroughly, it takes time, attention and detail. I’m following this with great interest and look forward to seeing the findings and recommended actions.

As a workplace investigator I would expect the same principle to apply when investigating a case of bullying and harassment. While some mistreatment, bullying or harassment can be obvious, a lot of it is subtle and non-verbal and therefore it is important to investigate the facts, how it has made the individual feel and the consequences of such behaviour, to get a clear understanding of the wider issue. Following this, I would expect to make recommendations based on my findings about how this behaviour can be prevented and creating an awareness of the wider issue.

So, I guess the moral of the story here is that no one, no industry is beyond an independent investigation into mistreatment, bullying or harassment and we need to start treating people as humans and be kind.

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Conflict here, conflict there, conflict everywhere

Today I want to talk about conflict. Whether you are in the office or working remotely this still exists. Working remotely just makes the conflict hidden, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Conflict is everywhere at the moment, bubbling just under the surface, waiting to erupt. Why? 

  1. Individuals are on furlough wondering why they have been the chosen ones;
  2. The ones on furlough have had little to no contact with their teams and feel neglected;
  3. Individuals are working harder than ever due to their colleagues being on furlough and feel resentment for being at work while their colleagues are having an extended holiday (or so they assume);
  4. Working parents or carers are juggling work and family commitments all at the same time, often working strange hours to ensure they deliver;
  5. People are being made redundant and take issue with the selection, communication process, etc;
  6. Leaders want their employees to come back to work but there is anxiety in the air that they don’t understand and are not making the time to;
  7. Leaders are having to make difficult decisions which may not be popular.

The list goes on, but it exists whether it be our own personal conflict or with others. Now more than ever people will be less forthcoming about conflict for fear of job security or being accused of wasting management time. What are we doing about it? Whether we are leaders or working in HR, it is our responsibility to deal with it. Now more than ever there is conflict, some hidden, some more obvious, regardless of the situation, it should to be tacked head on. But how can we do this if we are remote?

Listen and understand: We need to be actively listening, communicating and making an effort to understand where this conflict comes from and why, and how it can be resolved effectively.

Patience, empathy and asking the right questions: Just because we can’t see people face to face, it does not mean that we cannot see the struggle on screen or in their communications.

Take the time to engage on a one on one: Create a culture of more openness and honesty. With more and more of us potentially working remotely for the long haul, openness, honesty and trust will become ever more important – from everyone.

Tackle issues head on and looking out for those early signs: They are there in body language, email tone, level of engagement and presence, we just need to be mindful of looking out for them because it is now far too easy to brush it under the carpet and hoping it will go away. There are long-term consequences of doing this to individuals, teams and ultimately the business.

Moral of the story: act now, start listening and mediate! Please do not be a business or leader that feels conflict does not exist or is not important. If you care about your teams, culture and engagement levels, it is important!

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Supportive interventions and performance

During the last 4 months I have worn a number of different hats, one of them being a teacher to a 9 year old and a 5 year old. I will be glad to finally hang up this hat, hopefully to never use it again.

As I reflect on the last 4 months I realise the following:

  1. I have less patience for my own children, but do have plenty for others. I am sure I am not alone on this one!
  2. I reminded myself how creative I can be by taking the learning needs of my children into account and build this into a more effective session.
  3. Empowering them with their learning increased their engagement.

How will I use this in my business? This has prompted me to update my performance management workshop and push the notion of “supportive interventions” as part of discussions. Basically what it says on the tin, to engage and develop our teams, we need to provide supportive interventions to help them perform. You do this by listening, understanding and putting in supportive measures and taking time to get them up to speed and meet their career aspirations. It feels that we do not do as much of this as we should, and with more and more teams working remotely, this certainly needs to change.

What lessons has lockdown taught you and how will you use it/have you used it in your business?