You might have heard the phrase: ‘It’s just the way things work over here’. But does it have to be this way? This episode highlights the different aspects of the umbrella term transgressive behaviour. Together with Scott Solder we talk about boundaries and what happens when someone crosses them. Tips are given on how to let someone know that whatever they have said has landed badly. During the episode we highlight the concept of an active bystander, power dynamics and the process of normalization. Scott emphasizes that we don’t have to start walking on eggshells, but that having an open dialogue about what is acceptable behaviour nevertheless is crucial. 

Scott Solder

As one of the founders of The Active Bystander Training Company, Scott delivers training and appears at conferences and events demonstrating psychological and assertiveness techniques which are highly effective in challenging unacceptable behaviours. 

Scott is a former Editor at BBC News and Current Affairs and a specialist in language, influence and persuasion.  His book, ‘You Need This Book to Get What You Want’ (published by Simon & Schuster), is a globally published and widely translated guide to improving your powers of persuasion.

The Active Bystander Training Company operates globally in 25 countries in five languages. Its clients include listed companies, global brands, government departments, universities and schools.

Testimony - Giselle Corradi

Giselle is a post-doctoral researcher (within the Department of European, Public and International Law at the Faculty of Law and Criminology) and coordinator of an interdisciplinary research consortium on human rights.


Scott: [00:00:01] For me, the biggest first step to take for any organization is for the most senior person in the organization that you can get, to say, we don't tolerate this. And to make that public. And to say that the organization in this case maybe the university, would support anybody who raised a concern so that everybody knows that actually, you're not on your own.

David: [00:00:28] Welcome to Unpublished, a podcast about mental well-being at work. The podcast has been created by Trustpunt, that's the confidential advisor service at Ghent University. Now in the series, we focus on topics related to academia and the research community. But there's a wealth of information in the series that will be inspiring whatever your walk of life. My name is David Chan. I'm a lecturer at Ghent University and I'm the host of Unpublished. In each episode, we tackle a topic about mental well-being in the workplace. The topics are sensitive and often seen as taboo. They include phenomena such as imposter feelings, cultural differences, and loneliness. Now for each of these topics, I talk to an expert in the field who gives fascinating insights based on their research and professional experience. Alongside our main guest, you'll also hear clips of individuals in academia sharing their own personal stories. With this podcast, we hope to create a greater openness towards the issues we cover and to help create a safe, comfortable space in which to talk about mental well-being in a positive way. Hi Lore, welcome.

Lore: [00:01:41] Hi, David.

David: [00:01:42] Now you work for Trustpunt. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about Trustpunt?

Lore: [00:01:46] So I am Lore. I'm a confidential counselor at Trustpunt. Trustpunt is a psychosocial well-being department at Ghent University. People can come to us if they need a listening ear and actually all issues related to mental well-being at work can be discussed with us during a confidential conversation.

David: [00:02:05] In this episode, we talk about the difficult issue of transgressive behavior at work, an issue that prompts many questions. How do I address the issue? What effect might it have on my mental well-being and how do I respond when I feel that somebody has crossed my boundaries? And overall, why is it important to talk about this?

Lore: [00:02:24] Well, in our society, there's a lot to do about it. Not only in academia, but also in cultural or sports environments. People are raising more and more questions regarding transgressive behavior in general and according to me that's a good thing because we want to create more awareness and define what transgressive behavior is and at Trustpunt we hope to offer a framework to encourage meaningful dialogue.

David: [00:02:47] I agree it's important to give a signal that says it's okay to discuss this. In today's episode, I talk with Scott Solider. Now Scott is based in the UK and he's an expert in the field of transgressive behavior and in particular the active bystander concept. Today with me in the center of Ghent, a very lively environment, lots of work going around. With me is Scott Solder, who has come all the way from London to speak with us today and give us some insights based on his own expertise and experience into today's topic, the idea of transgressive behavior. Scott Perhaps, first of all, you might introduce yourself to the listeners. Who are you?

Scott: [00:03:28] I'm one of the directors of the Active Bystander Training Company, which is based in London, and we provide training to organizations globally on how to challenge poor behavior in the workplace, in universities, in schools as well among children. Basically, we set up the company about four years ago now based on a commission by Imperial College in London. We've been working with the University of Kent for the past few years in helping them to roll that training out throughout the university. Our relationship goes back some time.

David: [00:03:59] I think we all have a sense of when that term is used. Transgressive behavior. It sounds rather a frightening term. I've got a vague sense of what that involves. Harassment, perhaps intimidation, bad behavior, but it's a rather umbrella term, isn't it? I wanted to get, first of all, a sense from your perspective of what is the range that we're talking about within this idea of transgressive behavior.

Scott: [00:04:24] I think the range is very much relative in many ways. I mean it's interesting the word transgressive. I mean generally in common parlance in certainly in England that word isn't used. But I rather like it because it's a, it's a direct translation from Dutch, from the Flemish 'grensoverschrijdend gedrag' which is about crossing that border, isn't it? And I like the way that it does that because it really looks at where that border is. Now, for me, that boundary for people is different. And so what some people may find comfortable. Others may not. And so I think the biggest point about challenging behavior, which crosses that boundary, is really to realize that people have different boundaries and that they have every right to point out if you crossed it. Even if you didn't mean to. It may have been a joke, it may have been a foolish remark that we all make sometimes, don't we? But the point is, people should feel like they're able to say so if something's made them feel uncomfortable at best, I suppose. Or more seriously, if they feel in danger or if they feel like they are genuinely being targeted or intimidated.

David: [00:05:32] But we're going to start by listening to Giselle Corradi about her experiences on maintaining a balance in terms of behavior that is acceptable and behavior that is not.

Giselle: [00:05:45] My name is Giselle Corradi. I come from Argentina and I moved to Belgium 20 years ago because I met the love of my life who is a Belgian man. And so, I live in Ghent with my husband, my son, and I work at Ghent University. I have an academic background as a legal anthropologist. I have worked as a researcher at the Human Rights Centre for ten years. Right now I am the coordinator of an interdisciplinary Research Consortium on Human Rights, also at the university. I think that when we talk about abusive behavior, it's important to realize that this behavior may not be clear-cut abusive for everybody. You may be experiencing certain behavior as abusive, but the person who is behaving that way may not think at all that the behavior is abusive. So I think it's very nuanced. Sometimes it's clearer and it's obvious. Sexual assault. Well, we don't need to discuss that, but I think there are many grey zones. I wonder what kind of factors facilitate the possibility to tell a person, "Look, to me, the way you behave is abusive" or "this is not okay for me". I wonder how can you generate a context or a culture, if you like, of consciousness about the fact that what for one person is abusive for the other one may not? How do you talk about that in a constructive way, in a fruitful way, in a respectful way. Because it's not always clear-cut.

David: [00:07:35] Scott talks about transgressive behavior while Giselle cell talks about abusive behavior. But both of these can mean the same thing. Boundaries are subjective, and what might be okay for one person crosses the boundaries of another. When we think about situations in which these types of behaviors can occur, we often think, okay, there's a person involved who is responsible for the behavior and another person who suffers from that behavior. Perhaps we can just, first of all, think about the person who is responsible for the behavior. It's not always the case that somebody is actually aware that their behavior is not welcome, that their behavior is having a negative effect on somebody else. A work colleague, for example.

Scott: [00:08:18] Absolutely. I mean, whenever we run this training for organizations, for individuals, I always say to them, sometimes it's just about letting somebody know that whatever they said or did landed badly. Sometimes we do things and we don't realize the impact on somebody else. It could be a misplaced joke, which actually the person may be sensitive about. It could be deliberately aggressive behavior, which people think is okay because of the environment that they work in. You know, there are lots of sectors where it's kind of a given that you have to be a bit ballsy. You have to have a spirit. And if you can't handle the sort of knockabout behavior or language that people often resort to in those sectors, that actually maybe that job isn't for you or that environment is not for you. Academia is a great example of that. The academic, the professor is God and has power, and that actually, if you can't handle that, maybe you shouldn't be in academia. But actually, the fact of the matter is that people don't go to work or to or to their place of study to feel uncomfortable or to feel victimized or to feel like they're being discriminated against or being bullied. So actually, it's just about knowing how to point it out and to let people know that whether they meant it or not, I felt uncomfortable and actually having a few options available to you so that there's always one that feels like you could choose. And for me, I think it's about creating a culture where it's actually okay to say "that felt a bit aggressive to me". And the other person may disagree. The other person may say, "Well, I didn't mean it to be aggressive" and that's fine. But you've still said so. If they choose to continue the behavior, then you may have to resort to something else. But very often it's just letting somebody know how something felt. And very often the person who's responsible for that behavior will change their behavior if they didn't mean any harm.

David: [00:10:16] I wanted to ask you about the element of time here, because, I mean, we have the idea of inappropriate behavior, perhaps, or even if somebody is not aware that it's inappropriate and it could be a one-off. But then there's the idea of behaviors being ongoing and really nothing being done about it.

Scott: [00:10:34] Yeah. I mean, this is very common. There are two sorts of psychological forces at play here. One of them is called pluralistic ignorance and the other one is called forced consensus. And they kind of play off against each other. And basically what it means is that if you or I were in a situation where somebody behaved poorly, let's just say that very broadly in a way that's making me feel uncomfortable. My natural reaction is actually to- even though I feel uncomfortable, I quickly look at everyone else's face that it's in the room just to check that I'm not the only one because I need to feel confident that I'm not overreacting. So I look around and I seek that sort of safety in numbers. And as I look at their faces, very often, they don't look too bothered by the behavior. Now, what is that about? They're all doing the same thing, you see. So this is pluralistic ignorance. People are looking like they're not bothered because they're all playing poker and they're not giving anything away. And what that means then is that I do not feel confident about raising my discomfort or my concern because I feel like I'm the only one. Now, the person who's behaving poorly takes that silence as permission to continue the behavior. They somehow think, Well, I can do that with these people because no one's looking to consent. Now, the issue is, is that not only do they take that silence as permission to continue, but human beings, like many animals, we're programmed to push boundaries. So what that means is that when they next do it, they go a bit further. See if I can do that now, see if nobody says anything again. So over time, this behavior very gradually begins to deteriorate. So really I mean, I can't stress this message enough. If you witness people behaving poorly, particularly in a work context, it's highly likely that if you don't do anything about it, the behavior will get worse over time. It will not stay the same. And that is why, as you say, David, time is so important here, because if you leave it, time will make it worse.

David: [00:12:36] We are creatures of habit. Once that habit is established, it's very difficult to break out of it.

Scott: [00:12:40] Absolutely. And just to take that one step further, if people then become normalized in the way they behave, you will often find that other people, particularly impressionable people, maybe younger colleagues, new colleagues, people that want to impress or fit in, they will start to copy the behaviors because they will take it even at a subconscious level, that this is how we do things here. And that is how cultures can become sort of fixed.

David: [00:13:06] I mean, it's an extraordinarily difficult thing to do to stand up and say, right, well, I don't think this is appropriate. And, you know, if that's in a work situation, especially, what sort of strategies might there be into actually addressing the problem?

Scott: [00:13:22] I think the first strategy if you like, is genuinely to look at a situation and notice that something's happened. That's the first thing, is to bring it to your conscious awareness and to take a step and say, actually, that person did just speak in a way to somebody or behave in a way towards somebody else which wasn't okay. All right. And really consider it a problem and really make that a conscious decision. And then I think what is really important is, is that I think you make it your problem. Even if you're just standing there, you just happen to witness what's going on, the other person is being targeted. But actually think well, let's think about it as if I were being targeted here. What would I say? How would I feel? And you just take ownership of that. You make it your problem and feel responsible for dealing with it. And then that leads you to the point where you just think, okay, well, I've taken ownership. What do I do? Because it is much easier to intervene if you are the third party than to defend yourself very often if you're the target. So be the target in a way and speak up. So if one person does begin to sort of help somebody or to support them or check if they're okay, the rest of the herd, the rest of the crowd will take that as permission to say, actually, let's go and help them. You know, can I do anything? But it takes one person to do it. I mean, that was the MeToo movement, really in a nutshell, if you think about it like that. One person spoke up and then it became Me Too. Other people took the permission.

David: [00:14:55] There is a link between power and hierarchy and transgressive behavior. Giselle talks about her perspective as a supervisor.

Giselle: [00:15:04] I think there are many grey zones in power relationships. It's not a clear-cut situation where one party has the power and the other one does not have the power. Often there are areas where you can navigate a certain sphere that you can influence or shape. I will give you an example. Suppose you are the supervisor in a project and then you are not satisfied with the work a certain person is performing. On the one hand, you want to steer that person to do things in a way that you consider appropriate. But at the same time, if this person decides to quit the project altogether, which is also something that you cannot avoid, then that may be detrimental to the project. And so even though you have, let's say, the power to tell this person you are not performing and I may decide to fire you at the same time, you may not want to fire the person because, you know, it will be much more difficult to find a new person.

David: [00:16:03] As Giselle said, and as the proverb goes, with power comes responsibility. But when you're in a position where you have less power or are lower on the ladder, so to speak, it's less obvious to talk about your feelings. Quite often there's a power relationship involved in hierarchical organizations, especially such as universities. For a person who feels that they're the subject of behavior, which is really affecting their well-being. It's been going on for over a long period of time. What kind of steps can a person like that take to try and address the problem?

Scott: [00:16:40] I think the first thing to bear in mind is it can be extremely intimidating because one of the big fears that we have if we want to chat- particularly in a hierarchical environment, as you say because where there is a hierarchy, there is power. And that power can really do you damage. So the first thing is to overcome the fear. And for me, the biggest first step to take for any organization is for the most senior person in the organization that you can get to say, we don't tolerate this. And to make that public and to say that the organization in this case maybe the university would support anybody who raised a concern so that everybody knows that actually, you're not on your own. Because people fear they'll be hung out to dry if they raise a concern. They also fear that sometimes an organization will say all of the right things because it needs to, but actually doesn't step up to the mark if a problem arises. So you really need to make it clear to the people within your organization that they will be supported by that very organization. I mean, I think that's the first step. The second step is for there to be very clear channels that people can use. I think you have an excellent system in Belgium where universities have a confidential counselor, and that is an intrinsic part of the support that any organization can give you. Because the other fear that we have is that if we mention it to anybody that this terrible process starts. This scary process. And suddenly HR is interviewing me and suddenly they're going to be talking to the person who's behaving poorly. And I feel like it might get out of control, that it all might blow up in my own face. Because particularly if the organization itself may support, quietly, even supports the perpetrator. So these are very normal and very understandable fears. But to have somebody you can talk to who will, number one, lesson number two, not tell anyone. And thirdly, maybe give you some context and to say, well, you know, I've heard this several times before, actually, you're not the only one. You're not alone. And actually, that's very important for that confidential counselor to let you know you're not alone. And they will know that. I think that's important to have a channel that won't necessarily take your information any further, but it is somebody with knowledge and wisdom, and experience to speak to. But then after that, I think you need the other channels, too. You know, if you do want to start a process of if you do want to raise a particular grievance, you know how to do it due to contact and that you will be supported.

David: [00:19:24] Also within the situation, you'll hear some people saying, well, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. And I think for particularly for those people in positions of authority, in positions of power, if you like, might begin to feel, well, I'm walking on eggshells. I can't function in the way I want to anymore, because if I say something inappropriate, I'm going to be punished. I can't make a mistake. There is no room to make a mistake. I'm, of course, caricaturing that a little bit. But how can we address that worry that that anxiety?

Scott: [00:20:00] I think there are two ways of addressing that because it's a perfectly reasonable question. But I think there's a very simple answer. Number one, I don't think people should be treading on eggshells. I think you should be saying when you think somebody needs to work harder, or if somebody isn't quite meeting their performance criteria. I think you should be able to have an animated spirited debate, particularly in an academic environment. People need to disagree. People need to become a bit cross with the person they're disagreeing with. Of course, we're all humans. We're warm-blooded, and that is how we get progress. If you do it and it feels like it's inappropriate, the other person needs to feel empowered to say so and you need to accept it. Secondly, you need to know how to do it. There are ways of saying, "Listen, we need to talk about your timekeeping because it isn't good. We need to talk about how I want you to do things instead". There are ways of saying, Actually, no I haven't got time to do this, please. There are ways of doing that. There are ways of saying, "I'm really sorry, but you're not working hard enough. I can see, and you're not going to get your results if you don't up your game a bit". There are ways of doing it. You don't have to be aggressive. You can be professional, you can behave with integrity. And if you cross the line sometimes, okay, that's fine. We're all human. We make mistakes. We're not expecting everyone to be perfect. You should not be scared of how you speak particularly, but you should be open to feedback if it comes back.

David: [00:21:41] So a transparent means of communication is important, as well as giving feedback respectfully. Sometimes we're not aware of our own behavior and the expectations of others. She tells us what she thinks are the most important aspects of working together with people.

Giselle: [00:21:58] For me, it's important that people feel that I respect them, that that that I understand their expectations of how they like to be treated. And then you have other professors with whom I have a much more informal contact. And the same goes for the researchers in general. Because in my position as a coordinator is important to be able to make contact with people. And that means that I am very careful about trying to perceive what are the expectations.

David: [00:22:30] One of the themes that we talk about a lot in these podcasts is the idea of wellbeing. Well-being at work. And clearly, this is a very important element in this idea of transgressive behavior. What are the benefits? If you have a healthy culture, a healthy environment where there is dialogue, and where these kinds of behaviors can be dealt with effectively and constructively, what are the benefits that can deliver to the staff?

Scott: [00:23:00] I think, number one, people feel like they have a stake, they are invested in the performance of the organization, whatever that is. I think they feel they are invested in the culture as well, particularly if you feel able to have a say over the culture within your workplace. I think you create a sense of well-being immediately because cultures are made of people. They're made of people in, they're made of history. And those two things go together to create your culture. And in order to change your culture, you can't change your history, but you can certainly change either the people or the way the people behave. And so I think it's really important that you start with the way that people view your organization and the workplace, the relationship they feel they have with it, and certainly the way that they behave within it.

David: [00:23:41] And on the other side of that, of course, is for those people who are struggling or suffering as a result of the kinds of behaviors we've been talking about. What are the effects on that sense of well-being for the individual? But also I think in terms of the group working atmosphere.

Scott: [00:23:59] One thing that comes up very, very often when I run training in this area is that people say yes, but what happens if you raise a concern and the organization just does nothing about it? What about when they push back? They either tell you you're overreacting or they tell you that it's just the way things are here. If you don't like it, well, maybe you need to go and work somewhere else. And this is the classic language of what I was talking about earlier normalization. So if it's just the way things are here or it's just the way that somebody is or they're just old school, that's another one. The word just is a very big giveaway. If you hear the word, just switch the alarm bells on because that is the language of normalization. It's just the way they are. And that's not enough. It doesn't have to be like that. And certainly making excuses for people, this is just the way they are. We just have to accept that it's very easy to look the other way. And so for an organization to be very, very clear about what it will tolerate and what it will not tolerate, people do need to know that they will be at least heard. They may not agree, but if you raise a concern you will at least be heard, and you won't be shut down for overreacting or being overly sensitive. For me, that's extremely important. And do remember that if you don't get anywhere with a particular individual, you do have other people you can talk to.

Scott: [00:25:23] You've either got that person's boss or you've got your own boss if that's a different person or you can go laterally to h.r. Or diversity or to the confidential counselor who can at least give advice and sometimes report to the board of the university. In this case to give context with no names, no dates, no no facts and figures, but to say we are hearing as a theme that this is happening and this is important context for any board of governors or for any executive committee to know about. I think the first step is huge. If there's something on your mind, whether you're an individual or a team. If there's an elephant in the room, if there is an unspoken problem, that's pretty damaging. Because if it sits there like a very toxic thought, either among the group or just in your own mind, it will get bigger if you ignore it. And the best way to get rid of the elephant in the room is to talk about that elephant because the minute you do it, it stops being an elephant in the room and it becomes a conversation. So if you even if you have one colleague or one friend you can just talk to them about whatever's going on, the very act psychologically, the very act of verbalizing, of articulating a problem so that it stops being just an unhelpful thought. Getting those words out and hearing your own voice say those words makes the problem feel manageable immediately.

David: [00:26:47] I think that the main message really from the insights that you've given us today, is about not turning away and engaging, especially if you are somebody who's suffering from inappropriate behaviors, but also if you are witness to that. But what do you think are some of the most important lessons that a university, given the kind of unique type of organization that it is that it might take away in terms of addressing this area?

Scott: [00:27:17] I think focusing on the power dynamic, certainly, for people who are in a sort of Ph.D. situation or a postdoc situation, the power that the academic has, the supervisor is enormous and the perceived power that they have is often even more enormous in the mind of that postdoc or the Ph.D. So just to remember, number one, the weight of your own words, if you are an academic, just a joke, just a light-hearted comment, which may be to you harmless can often weigh down on people who perceive you to have a lot of power. You may not realize it. And for the organization as a whole, for the university to be very aware of that power dynamic and also the potential abuse of that power dynamic, but also just to keep their eyes open because not only do they need to make clear that abuse of power is not acceptable, but secondly, to spot it when it does happen because these things can happen privately. Behind closed doors, people have offices and people go and visit them in their offices. And things can be done or said that no one ever would be witness to.

David: [00:28:31] As a conclusion: we're all potentially vulnerable to the kind of behaviors that we might that might make us suffer. But equally potentially we can also be responsible for behaviors and quite often without knowing it, and I especially, I especially think I'm getting older and I quite often see with my own students that sometimes I'll say something and the student will react to me in a very surprised way. But the weight that they put on those words, as you mentioned earlier, sometimes takes me back and it reminds me that I have to have a mind to the effect of the words I'm using here. We can tend to take things for granted.

Scott: [00:29:13] I would say. I mean, you've hit the nail on the head there, David. That number one, poor behavior, and poor communication is in the eye of the recipient. So if you've made somebody uncomfortable, if you've made them feel intimidated, you may not have intended to do that. But if they felt uncomfortable or intimidated, then maybe you could have done it differently. And so I just think keep an eye open for them. You'll see it in their face, you'll hear it in their voice. If what you say didn't quite land in the way that you intended. You know, the measure of good communication is how it's received. And so therefore the onus is on you to adjust that communication if it didn't quite work in the way you wanted to. So give people license, you know, say to them if they look uncomfortable, say, I'm really sorry, you look a bit uncomfortable. Did I say that right? Ask them, you know, get talking. If I could summarise everything I've said really for this whole podcast and that just gets talking. If you need to just check in with people, ask them if they're okay. Ask if you come across as aggressive or negative in any way and look around and talk about elephants in the room if they are there. Because talking we say a problem aired is a problem shared. Two heads are better than one. Safety in numbers. You know, there are so many expressions and they all mean the same thing, which is don't suffer in silence. You know, it's lovely.

David: [00:30:35] It's not often that we can do this, that we can sort of boil down an entire sort of interview to to to to a simple line. And in this case, it's talk to have a dialogue. And I think that's very it's a very valuable idea. Scott, thank you ever so much for coming in and making the. A journey from London to talk to us. It's been I'm sure the listeners will agree it's been incredibly valuable. Thank you. So that was a really inspiring talk that I had with Scott Solder.

Lore: [00:31:08] Yes, indeed. He's able to explain the difficult subject in simple terms, I think.

David: [00:31:12] Lore, what is the takeaway message for you?

Lore: [00:31:14] Well, the most important thing I will remember is that if you have the feeling that you can't reach out to your own supervisor, probably there are alternatives to report something in your institution or to talk to someone confidentially. And I can only add that at Kent University, employees and students can come to the response if they witness or experience transgressive behavior themselves.

David: [00:31:37] What struck me was his key message. Just talk about it.

Lore: [00:31:40] Yes, indeed. It's always better to talk about it than to worry about it. And people might dread this, but it doesn't have to be a heavy conversation if you have the feeling that something you said didn't end well with the other person, just tickets. A lot of consequences can be avoided by talking about them immediately.

David: [00:31:59] And in that way, we can take into account each other's boundaries.

Lore: [00:32:02] Indeed, on the one hand, she has strict boundaries if you're talking about criminal offenses, but on the other hand, there is a behavior where it's not so clear because it depends on individual boundaries. So, yes, talking about it really helps.

David: [00:32:18] This was Unpublished, a podcast of Ghent University to give insights about mental well-being to our local and international coworkers. Have you been affected by one of the topics in our episodes? Or then don't hesitate to contact a confidential counselor of Trustpunt. Did you find this an interesting episode? Share it with your coworkers. You can find more information about this podcast at In the next episode, I'll be talking to Jasmine Vergauwe on the topic of imposter feelings. Unpublished is a podcast brought to you by Trustpund from Ghent University and is produced by Chase Creative.