Dealing with Bullying in the Workspace

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Dealing with Bullying in the Workspace

Bullying seems inescapable in modern life, whether the context is school-aged children, adults in the workspace, or newly elected politicians behaving badly. The associated consequences and handwringing prompt us to take a swing at it, at least as far as the workspace component is concerned.

What Bullying Is and Isn’t: Bullying is the misuse of power, (physical capacity, knowledge, wealth, position, et. al.) to intimidate, coerce, or demean another. In a nutshell, it is behaving unacceptably simply because you believe you can. Bullies come in all sizes, shapes, ages, and hairstyles, without partiality to Carhart or Armani suits; the factory floor, cube farm, or corner office. It’s an accretive behavior that, left unmitigated, can become habitual and dangerous, even to adults. It is seldom kept a secret for long.

Bullying has significant organizational consequences. People who witness or are targeted by bullying typically take a step back, withhold discretionary effort, and they frequently leave, taking the story, their talents, and perhaps some of your money with them. Just ask Rupert Murdoch. Occasionally, they retaliate violently.

But let’s be clear – setting high expectations, giving people difficult news, judging their performance or behavior candidly, even harshly, or expecting them to adhere to reasonable organizational standards do NOT in the normal context constitute bullying.

How is it manifest? Through implied threat, bribery, or control, bullying is commonly used to have one’s way with another… Their ideas, opinions, voice or vote, their emotional wellbeing, their body, their lunchbox.

Why is it so prevalent? Though there are more touchpoints today by which to bully others, I’m not sure that the rate of bullying is any greater now than it ever has been. It’s easier perhaps. Using Facebook or Twitter, you don’t even have to be in the same zip-code to bully someone.

Regardless of method, there likely isn’t a person on Earth who has not been bullied at some point. Because the airwaves are more open and available, we probably hear about it more. And, over my lifetime, society has restricted the acceptable ways of dealing with bullies. Using a baseball bat to “make them stop”, as my father once suggested, is no longer in the mix. Outing the bully digitally or via a lawsuit is in.

How Should We Deal With It In the Workspace? First, let’s stipulate that it must be dealt with, and quickly. Even in organizations that are culturally attuned to playing rough, the inappropriate use of power to coerce, belittle, or punish others is unacceptable, period. If for no other reason, it’s bad for business. When it happens, people are watching and wondering when the turret will turn toward them, and in the meantime, there isn’t a lot of work getting done. At a minimum, senior leaders should be doing three things in this regard:

  1. As primary architects and conveyors of workplace culture, leaders must first set a good example, taking care to use their own power legitimately, in a well-metered fashion.
  2. They should enact policies that unmistakably forbid workplace bullying, and take decisive action upon any occurrence, particularly if the perpetrator has a leadership role. 
  3. They should talk openly with their management team and the organization at large about their feelings on the matter, and why workplace bullying is unacceptable.
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