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5 Ways to Stop Playful Banter from Becoming Painful Bullying

May 10, 2019 . 1:27 pm

Love it or hate it, most of us engage in banter’s gentle conversational teasing in some form be it with friends, family or colleagues. Exchanging personal digs and satirical jibes has long been a staple form of social communication and when used correctly it has the power to raise a smile, defuse tension, ease confrontation and even forge friendships.

By its very nature banter walks a fine line between playfulness and insult so small wonder it can easily result in conflict. In most cases, light-hearted, playful mickey taking between friends and colleagues is taken in good humor however, these remarks are highly subjective and open to wide ranging interpretation. After all, a joke at someone’s expense will always have the potential to deeply offend.

So how do we know when it’s gone too far? Well, banter can start to become bullying when both parties no longer engage equally. At best, a well-intended comment can backfire and insult forcing an apology. At worst, the intention behind the comment may be hostile signalling a deeper issue. Frequency and repetition can worsen things and magnify even further should a complaint fail to stop it.

The darkest side of banter occurs when the offending party uses it to justify aggressive behavior often involving innuendo, prejudice or humiliation. For example, a tribunal, during the Minto v Wernick Event Hire Ltd case, found a man guilty of sex discrimination and harassment. He tried to brush off his derogatory and sexually driven comments as “only banter” when in fact the complainant was so appalled she took him to court.

So how risky is banter and as concerned Managers, what can we do about it?

Here are 5 ideas we believe will help:

  • Policies 

Easily the first port of call. It should go without saying that your company will have staff behavior, anti-bullying, equality and diversity policies but are you familiar with them? Have a good read and arm yourself with the rules to help you identify dangerous or discriminatory behavior and structure any informal or formal conversations. 

  • Education & Consequence, Not Control

You will never control people or the impulsive comments they make so don’t even try. Becoming a dystopian style anti-banter cop will cause more problems than it’ll solve and cause stress and hypersensitivity all over the place. Instead, focus on regular staff education sessions to help people understand company policy, the impact of ‘banter gone wrong’, bullying and the consequences of failing to adhere to the rules.

  • Cultivate A Culture of Respect, Fairness, Ethics & Diversity

In your department, though ideally the entire company, establish a philosophy of trust. Trust will form a cultural foundation to encourage people to listen, help and above all care for each other. There are so many benefits to this approach (totally another blog) but of course this includes lowering the chances of banter becoming bullying.

  • Preemptive Strikes

Don’t wait for a complaint. If you spot someone suffering disproportionate stick for something try to stamp it out. Most people will tolerate a great deal before they make a complaint but that doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it. Not only will you earn their respect by delicately intervening but you’ll almost certainly see their mood and performance improve too.

  • Sheriffs & Deputies

Empower junior managers, team leaders and senior staff to reinforce the rules, spot risky banter and support anyone on the receiving end of any negativity. They can choose to escalate it if necessary but in most cases the issues will fizzle out. Most importantly, the more people banging the drum, the quicker your culture will change.

In conclusion, most of the time banter is harmless however, to avoid any problems we need to be proactively aware of what people are saying to each other and be ready to step in when needed with quiet words or disciplinary action. Focus on education and develop a positive culture of trust and respect to encourage better communication and empathetic decision making. 

Good Luck and Happy Bantering!

Check out Langley James’ resources and articles on a range of business topics: https://www.langleyjames.net/blog

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