Bullying. We associate this with school, and childlike behaviour – but sadly it’s by no means limited to the school room.
People exerting real or imagined power to intimidate, undermine, control or humiliate others.
Legally speaking, harassment is when bullying is concerning a protected characteristic of the target – generally something they can’t change; age, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion etc.
I myself have struggled all my life with the impact of school bullying, watching kids being brutally bullied by others at school and my own work experiences. I’d like to share some of my experiences and advise, it might help someone.
We cannot downplay the impact of bulling. It has a massive impact on mental health of those being bullied and others who witness it within the workplace. As well as the direct personal impact, this also means you have stressed, demotivated employees more likely to leave or even actively interfere with the companies goals.
The combined stress, performance, culture, trust and communication impact in your organisation means senior leaders must take action.
From personal experience, I felt stressed, angry, unable to communicate, de-valued which all put me into a defensive posture. I hated coming into work. It was one of the most horrific periods of my professional life, and one of the main reasons I leapt feet first into Agile Scrum.
I had spent 6 years building the company from the ground up, working tirelessly to deliver the technology only to be harassed and bullied by a fellow director, who was – as it turned out – a massive narcissist. I had sacrificed time with my young family, my own mental health, risked monthly of loosing my house – only to be screamed at during monthly meetings, “teased” for my speech impediment and tripped up by rapid questioning and interruption. At the time I was too shocked to recognise this as harassment; and without HR I had nowhere to turn. Life became hellish.
So I did the unimaginable. After 6 years of sacrifice I left. My red line had been crossed, I took control and I left the organisation I helped create. It was hard to do, and I still struggle with the impact from a mental health perspective to this day.
From the point of view of the bully, they often don’t think they are indeed a bully. They may be frustrated by an individual, venting due to some other pressure and not realising the impact of their actions.
Or at least I like to think, giving the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, my particular bully actually got mad at me for calling him a “bully”, and proceeded to shout and scoff at me for the offense (which continued for more weeks). Wonderfully ironic, but it sure didn’t feel like it at the time.
Being a bully – rather than a grumpy sod – is about consistent poor behaviour with no consideration of the feelings of those around you. We all loose our temper from time to time – but a bully maintains a consistency that creates a negative spiral, with no concern of the impact they’re causing.
Perhaps some actually enjoy using the “rod” to motivate those around them rather than the “carrot”. This boggles my mind, but some people have this short term approach to leadership.
Perhaps they’re just narcissists.
Hmm. Victims. It’s a term used frequently, but you relinquish any power to change your situation by taking the title. Don’t be a victim; take action. Shall we change how we communicate with the bully? Raise the issue with your leadership? If leadership isn’t recognising the problem, go to HR.
The most important thing is not the tolerate it, and take action. Even if that’s to walk out the door and never come back.
What can we do?
We need to stand up to harassment – bullying – in the workplace. Leaders and peers should look for signs of it and provide clear and rapid feedback to those committing it – and also give advice to the victims.
Sometimes leaders aren’t there to help – perhaps they are the bullies! Larger organisations usually have well established HR departments that can be confidentially approached by those impacted in the event of leadership failure. This is not the case for SME’s or smaller – often employees are stuck – made even worse if their leaders are the bullies.
If there is no HR yet in your company, then leave. Leaving is ALWAYS an option, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Are you a Bully?
Leaders should also take time to consider if they are bullying; it’s easy to vent frustration or to give in to the demon of bravado and not realise the impact on your actions. As a leader, your outbursts will have significantly more impact to your sub-ordinates than you realise.
Those who experienced arguing parents will know what I mean!
It’s OK to loose your rag sometimes – but always make sure it’s an exception, not a rule – and it rapidly followed up by an apology and discussion with those affected.
Make it clear you’re angry at the situation, not the people around you.
What about conflict?
Its healthy to have some forms of conflict in the work place – healthy disagreement which is the hallmark of good, trusting teams, clear communications and a great inclusive mix of staff.
In Patrick Lencioni’s gripping “Death by Meeting” he underlines how important conflict can be during strategic company meetings.
As leaders we should encourage conflict to ensure matters are discussed to conclusion and decisions can be made with all the proverbial cards on the table. But there’s never a reason to not respect others, to humiliate and make people feel bad about themselves.
As leaders, we’re here to support, grow and make our sub-ordinates the best versions of themselves – at work and in their personal lives.
If you’re experiencing bullying in the work place, do something about it. Don’t tolerate it. Here’s some links to get started.