Bullying or allegations of bullying at work is always stressful for the people involved. For employers who have to deal with claims and instances of bullying, the dynamic can prove destructive and costly in a myriad of ways.
Not least the potential cost of employee complaints, as well as the loss of trust and confidence if such allegations or instances are not dealt with swiftly.
I don’t think I have ever been in a work situation where there has not been at least some discussion about whether behaviours can be construed as bullying. I have been in some where bullying has occurred and people have experienced being bullied and it’s not pleasant.
In the CIPD Employee Outlook Survey 2010, 16% of people surveyed said they thought bullying by their line manager had increased due to the economic downturn and frankly I’m not surprised.
In the last Civil Service People Survey in 2011, 9% of employees said they had experienced bullying, although of those, only 28% said the bullying behaviour had been from their line manager. It seems the allegation of bullying is not exclusively a line manager phenomenon.
In my own experience I have experienced “bullying behaviour” from line managers, customers and colleagues. I have witnessed many allegations of bullying; some warranted and some not so.
Personally I’ve never been accused of bullying, it’s easy to perceive assertive behaviour as bullying when employees aren’t used to it, and I bet some of my actions could well have been construed as such with certain people, and in certain circumstances.
Bullying has a particular dynamic and it’s often not clear cut, which is why so much of the behaviour isn’t tackled adequately in the workplace. Some of the dynamics of bullying I have witnessed are:
Bullying or being bullied is:
1. An abuse of and giving up of power
Bullying behaviour is an assertion of power over someone else. Mostly such behaviour is saying “I am more important than you and I know better” It’s a superiority trap, and it is borne of a fear of lack of inner power.
Being bullied is a giving up of power. No-one can bully anyone without their permission. If you believe in yourself and know your own worth, nothing anyone can say will shake your foundation. When anyone accepts bullying behaviour, even though it can be difficult situation to grasp; they are giving up their power.
2. Rarely a conscious intention and can sometimes come as a surprise to both people involved
Countless times I have witnessed people who have carried out bullying behaviour become extremely upset and appalled when they realise the effect they are having. When you encounter such a reaction you know the behaviour will stop.
Sometimes I have witnessed a denial and astonishment that their behaviour could be construed as bullying. These people have work to do, but awareness of their effect on others is often the starting point to change the behaviour forever.
People who are on the receiving end of bullying behaviour are often shocked at how vulnerable they are and how upsetting the behaviour is to them personally. They are often ferocious in their condemnation of the “bully” and aghast at how awful any human being could act towards another.
3. A dynamic which springs from fear of not being good enough on both sides
Someone displaying bullying behaviour is using the dynamic of force onto someone else. Anyone who has to use force on another is fearful of their ability to negotiate, influence or gain the co-operation, understanding, approval or help from another.
Someone who feels bullied by someone else feels disempowered to deal with the behaviour in order to achieve a positive outcome, and/or has an unconscious fear they are not good enough and that the bully might have a point.
4. A denial of the possibility of caring for each other
Caring about each other is our natural state. Whenever we are not caring about other people we are in disassociation or denial about who we really are at our core. The dynamic of bullying and being bullied is a blatant opposite dynamic of our natural inner urge to care about each other.
Often a bullying dynamic occurs because both” perpetrator and victim” don’t believe in the possibility of another caring enough about them to hear the other.
5. A dynamic of blame
When bullying behaviour surfaces, it is as a result of an inability to have the courage to take personal responsibility on both sides. The perpetrator is either consciously or unconsciously trying to change or intimidate the “victim” because they are “wrong”.
The person on the receiving end inevitably feels no choice but to see the behaviour as an attack on them rather than see the fear or lack of awareness in the person displaying the behaviour.
While I have observed those behaviours, I also have to say that whenever either real or alleged bullying behaviour occurs it is always unacceptable, and always ugly to watch because there is always an impact.
Quite often assertive behaviour can be seen as bullying and often assertive people can be subjected to behaviour which can be designed to get them to submit to another. Even in those situations, getting into the “who is right and who is wrong” debate is futile.
Bullying and alleged bullying is a serious business and can contaminate your organisation if not nipped in the bud immediately. You can find out my simple 5 Step Formula To Stop Workplace Bullying Forever, which is a bonus chapter in my E-Book “Getting to Grips with Stress In the Workplace”.
Christina Lattimer is founder and director of HR and leadership development consultancy, People Discovery.