It’s time to become ANTI-BULLYING
October is National Bullying Prevention Month in the UK. It’s a regular topic in my coaching work and one that I feel passionately about.
When we hear about bullying we tend to first think of children, teenagers and what’s going on at school at colleges. And wow, that’s an enormous topic in itself. What I’m referring to in this blog is bullying in the workplace – adult to adult bullying.
I’m going to share what I’m hearing about in my work, reflections on my own experiences of being bullied, that I fear I might have been a bully, the not so obvious impacts of bullying, and strategies for becoming ANTI-BULLYING.
What is workplace bullying?
There are lots of definitions for workplace bullying, and the one I found most impactful for me is this, taken from the National Bullying Helpline website.
“Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”
A bully shouldn’t be bullied in return
I’m going to be really straight on this subject and make my anti-bullying stance well known, but let me say this first.
I totally understand and appreciate that a bully, a persistent bully, someone who often leaves a trail of destruction, tears and destroyed confidence behind them, is likely to have been bullied themselves, might be acting from a point of pain, and themselves needs support.
I’m never advocating that a bully is themselves mis-treated as a way of addressing the situation. But I am saying that it is fundamentally wrong to avoid tackling workplace bullying, for whatever reason.
What does workplace bullying look like?
Experts who have studied this for years will have a more comprehensive answer than me, but let me share with you common examples of bullying that are shared with me in my coaching work:
- Malicious rumours being spread by one colleague about another – this can range from the overt and obvious, to very subtle suggestion
- Being shouted at in private and in public – aggressive verbal behaviour that leaves the subject humiliated and destroyed, and the onlookers embarrassed and helpless
- Feeling threatened with aggressive physical gestures – including banging tables and finger-pointing (usually accompanied with a good bit of shouting for effect)
- Constantly undermining a colleague and never allowing them to express their opinions or explore an idea
- And whilst this feeds more into harassment/discrimination territory, being excluded from key meetings, decision making, and the in-crowd within a team
I’m not talking of just one person sharing one of these examples. I hear these stories almost every day in my coaching work from men and women of a variety of ages, working in professional corporate settings.
If you think this doesn’t happen near you, think again.
I have experienced workplace bullying and harassment
I have many stories to tell, but let me share just a couple that have stuck with me, have affected me, and which I hold close to fuel my anti-bullying stance.
- Back in the 90’s and new into work I was the subject of sexual harassment and bullying from a male colleague, who pursued me persistently, stood far too close in the office, brushing by as close as he could, and touched me inappropriately at a team after-work dinner. I was told “not to make a fuss” and “you don’t want to ruin your career when you’re showing so much promise”. Nothing happened on the back of my reports to my line manager and HR. I later learned the same had happened to others by the same perpetrator.
- I’ve had a boss who used to talk about me in the 3rd person to my peers whilst we were all in the same room – “what is she talking about?” accompanied with an eye roll and a sneer. The alpha-male resorting to the only known tactics he had when I made an alternative suggestion. When challenged directly, that same person, all 6ft + of him, stood up, bent over the table, shouted in my face whilst pointing aggressively. This wasn’t a one-off. Over time, I started to just leave the meetings at this juncture and ask the minutes to reflect the exchange and my exit. My colleagues said plenty of supportive comments after the event, but nothing was ever challenged directly. I didn’t formally complain – I was advised not to.
- I’ve had a boss behaving like a petulant child, who would hang up the phone saying things like “call me when you know what the hell you’re doing”. Usually, because there was a particular number I was looking up rather than recalling straight from memory. That was a boss you NEVER wanted to tell if anything had gone wrong – the strips would be torn off you – never a suggestion of how they could help. It was just commonly understood and accepted – “that’s just the way it is”.
My examples are largely where there has been a power disparity, from my boss, but that’s not always the case. I know people who have been bullied by their subordinates, their peers, and by suppliers.
I worry if my behaviour at work has been bullying
I know without a doubt that people have always mattered more to me than anything else – how they feel, how they are developing, whether they are enjoying work and life. But that doesn’t mean that, whilst in my corporate career, I haven’t pushed hard for results, I haven’t delivered some tough messages, I haven’t over-ridden someone else’s recommendation, I haven’t had some of the most difficult conversations of my life, etc.
I like to think that I’ve always done that with respect and integrity, and ensured my people are supported. But here’s the thing, you never know what someone else’s experience feels like – unless you ask them. And I know I didn’t always ask the right questions; something I regret.
So, I don’t think I have ever fallen into this territory. As an ANTI-BULLY the thought would be devastating to me. But I am open to the fact that I might have got things wrong. And you should be too. It’s good to be curious and explore this subject.
The impacts of workplace bullying
There are so many consequences of workplace bullying, it feels a challenge to list them all, but I’m having a go.
- Personal impact – for the person on the receiving end, there’s embarrassment, reduction in confidence and motivation, undoubted impact on their performance, productivity and loyalty, likely impact on mental health, and maybe even physical health too. Speak to people who suffer from imposter syndrome and there’s likely been a bully somewhere along the way.
- Team impact – when others observe bullying they almost certainly feel something about it. Most people are horrified by it, but feel helpless, and subsequently guilty for their inaction. It causes changes to behaviour – others often make themselves smaller and less prominent to avoid becoming the potential focus of a bully. Others quietly plan their exit, knowing they don’t want to work in that toxic environment. I can guarantee broader team performance is affected.
- Organisational impact – when the culture allows bullies to flourish, you can be assured that you will have sub-optimal performance, engagement, loyalty and creativity. What more is there to say? It just doesn’t make business sense.
- Long-term impact – the impacts are not just in the moment and the immediate thereafter. When someone has knocked the stuffing out of you at work on a frequent basis, their confidence is often shattered to the extent that it stays with them for a long time. And the consequences of that are too long to mention. But I can tell you that it makes someone more susceptible to mental ill-health and burnout down the road.
Strategies for tackling workplace bullying
Wow, this is tough. Because there is no easy answer.
For the person on the receiving end of bullying, calling it out is the hardest thing to do and it can become a very lonely and all-consuming journey full of fear and self-doubt. Speak with people you absolutely trust, whether at work or outside, and tell them openly what is going on and how you feel about it. Ask for their emotional support and to help you come up with a realistic plan that will work for you.
Here are some thoughts. See if anything lands with you.
- Many would say that, if you feel able to, you should first speak to the bully. Tell them how your behaviour is making you feel and ask for changes. That’s a tough thing to do and you might need someone by your side.
- Speak with HR confidentially, tell them what’s happening, and ask to understand the policy and process for reporting bullying and having it addressed. Be clear on what you do and don’t want to happen.
- Put it in writing with as many examples as possible …
And as I’m writing these things I’m thinking “come on, get real!”. Yes, these are the right things to do. But, in reality, is it fair to put all this on the person who’s on the receiving end of some soul-destroying bullying? No. It’s not.
Workplace bullying is only addressed by the power of everyone
And that’s why we have to become a community of people that is ANTI-BULLYING.
We can choose not to be a bully ourselves and we can quietly comfort a colleague who’s experienced it, but it’s not really going to change anything.
If you are truly an ANTI-BULLY you have to call it out. In the moment. Immediately after. Not when years worth of quiet complaints and grumbling have built up.
Here are the real strategies:
- If you see it happening, call it out straight away. And keep calling it out. Again and again.
- Bring people together to unite as a force for good, and keep calling it out. Stand behind, by the side of, and in front of the person being bullied. They need to know they are not in the wrong.
- If you are in a position to, you should be addressing it, disciplining it, and if it doesn’t stop, the bully should be exited – swiftly. And without a financial incentive. Why on earth would you reward this?
- Never be fooled into thinking that someone’s bullying can be excused because they have unique skills and the business will fail without them. It’s BS, don’t fall for it.
- Ensure the victims have the right kind of support to reduce the likelihood of long-term impacts on their mental health, career prospects, and enjoyment of life.
Remember, company culture is defined by the worst behaviour tolerated. It has to be addressed.
This is close to my heart
Can you tell?
If you are experiencing bullying, don’t suffer alone. Take action today. Speak to those people close to you. Call on experts, which could be legal, emotional or health-related, for example. Get a plan in place and take the next step.
If you are observing bullying, it’s time to step into the ANTI-BULLYING space and call it out. Make it a team effort if you need to. I know it’s scary.
My work in this space is about helping people recover from the confidence-bashing they have taken and all the implications of that. I’m privileged and proud to help people get back on their path to thriving in an environment where they are appreciated and encouraged to flourish.
If the impacts of bullying have affected your confidence – my book ‘Confidence Confessions’ may help you consider ways to re-build it. Look after yourself.
Image credit: John Hain from Pixabay