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Tackling Bullying in the Workplace, at School, and in Sports

Learn from the “boss whisperer” how to turn bullying into empathy and patience.

Key points

  • Abrasive bosses often feel threatened, which makes them anxious and tips them into defensive behaviour.
  • Bosses can change bullying behavior with an evidence-based approach that reminds them that they are the guardian of the organization’s people.
  • To create workplaces, schools, and sports clubs that are psychologically and physically safe, leaders must fulfill their duty to act on bullying.
Source: reallywellmadedesks/Pixabay

Laura Crawshaw is known in corporate circles as the “boss whisperer,” a name a coaching client gave her. In the same way, a horse whisperer can transform an unruly, dangerous creature into a self-regulated and calm one, Crawshaw coaches bosses who default to bullying tactics and transforms them into thoughtful and empathic leaders.

Her new book, Grow Your Spine & Manage Abrasive Leadership Behavior, documented Crawshaw's method. As her subtitle explains, she’s written a “guide for those who manage bosses who bully.” After reading her book and discussing it with her, it’s clear that her method applies not only to bosses in the workplace but to all individuals who bully, including children. It applies to schools, sports clubs, and any other organization at risk for bullying.

Eight Steps for Managers to Stop Bullying in Their Organization

It is a two-part approach that first requires the leader, manager, director, principal, or athletic director to “grow a spine” and effectively address bullying in their organization. Far too many leaders look the other way or hand the crisis over to human resources, who also struggle to halt harmful conduct properly. Crawshaw provides eight steps to support the leader to exercise their empowered role and refuse bullying conduct.

The second stage is her work coaching the bullying boss so that he or she can change. This process takes time, but Crawshaw’s method, honed as a psychotherapist, corporate officer, researcher, and author of 35 years, is highly effective and has earned her an international reputation. The key is that the abrasive boss must choose to change and be a willing and committed partner in the coaching.

Considering that psychologically safe workplaces and schools are a top priority for productivity and learning, reading about and understanding Crawshaw’s successful intervention is worth the time and effort. The eight steps demand radical responsibility from the manager rather than looking the other way or delegating the difficult task to another department.

Crawshaw designs the eight steps to remind the manager that she is the guardian of the organization’s people. This responsibility is even more important when the manager is a principal who is the guardian of the school’s children or the manager is the head of a sports club with child athletes. The guardian’s job is to promote and defend, establish psychological and physical safety, trust his perceptions, and be the one who determines acceptable performance and conduct.

The “boss” position, because it has an inherent power balance, also applies to teachers and coaches who use bullying tactics to train or manage children. What’s exciting about the approach is it reminds us we have neuroplasticity. We can change our brains based on what we practice. If there are bullying bosses, teachers, or coaches, it is possible, with practice, to change their behaviour from abrasive to supportive.

Crawshaw’s approach does not allow the abrasive individual to take control of the situation and claim she is being victimized and her employees are not trusted. The method reinforces the manager’s power and doesn’t give it to others. It does not waste time on the abrasive individual insisting that the manager has not witnessed first-hand the bullying behaviour. It sidesteps this typical, aggressive backlash by stating the irrelevant point. All the manager needs to know is that multiple employees are reporting the boss’ bullying behaviour. The boss is being given a chance to change the perceptions or find alternate work.

The process of confronting the abrasive boss, teacher, or coach, and not backing down but instead firmly requiring a change in behaviour and a chance to do it with coaching creates the final step in Crawshaw’s method, which is the manager, principal, or athletic director exercising her “duty to act.” Far too often, when we hear about bullying in the workplace and especially in schools and sports, the leadership has been passive and ineffectual.

It’s time for leaders to "grow their spines" and halt bullying conduct.

On several occasions, Crawshaw has heard directly from employees who are so frustrated they have taken up firearms. We all read about the tragic consequences of school bullying, which may contribute to school shootings or suicides. As an alternative, Crawshaw sits across from a bullying boss who has chosen her coaching rather than being fired. She has learned in her many years that not only can these abrasive individuals change their behaviour, but they also want to and appreciate their new way of interacting with employees.

What drives these bosses to bully? Crawshaw says the answer is fear. They are so afraid of appearing incompetent or failing in some way that they lash out at their employees, believing it motivates and galvanizes them. In the coaching sessions, Crawshaw works alongside the abrasive boss to hear from employees how the bullying conduct impacts them. The abrasive bosses are shocked to learn that they are not respected, their rages and putdowns are not motivating, and their temper tantrums make them look silly and not powerful. It is at this moment that they become motivated to change.

Crawshaw teaches the abrasive bosses that they are feeling threatened, which makes them very anxious and tips them into defensive behaviour. She offers a simple, clear, unforgettable example of what happens when the sympathetic stress response is activated: the bullying boss goes straight into “fight” mode. In her coaching sessions, Crawshaw has her abrasive bosses learn to recognize and work through their anxiety rather than default to “fight” when threats arise.

Imagine how psychologically and physically safer our workplaces, schools, and sports clubs would be if managers, principals, and athletic directors followed Crawshaw’s method for halting bullying behaviour. Imagine all who bully, including children, transforming their damaging behaviours into calmer, less defensive, less anxious, and less abrasive conduct. It would change our world for the better. We need managers with backbones who know their duty to act and abrasive bosses who know they can change.


Crawshaw, L. (2023). Grow Your Spine and Manage Abrasive Leadership Behavior. Zurich: Executive Insight Press.

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