It’s not me, it’s you

I have been the victim of workplace bullying.

Members of my family have been victims of bullying, as have many of my friends and colleagues, as well as people I have worked with over the years as a trainer and coach.

These examples range from mild and ambiguous to serious abuses of power leading to job loss and health problems.

The one thing they have in common is that the bully sees it as the victim’s fault and, after months or years of this treatment, often the victim starts to think they are the problem too.

The thing is, the opposite is true: if you’re a bully, you’re a problem.

If you can’t manage people – even if there is a performance issue – without bullying, then you are (at best!) an unskilled manager and an incompetent professional.

Getting things done

Workplace bullying has been around for as long as there have been workplaces, and it’s not going away, despite many of us working in places that employ grown-ups and espouse values like “respect” and “kindness”.

We know it’s bad for the people who get bullied: demotivation, unhappiness, stress, anxiety, shame, health problems, loss of confidence, feelings of powerlessness and incompetence, career going backwards … but what is less acknowledged is that it is bad for business too: inefficiency, unwillingness to make decisions or take responsibility, risk-aversion, lack of creativity, poor performance, lack of collaboration and buy-in, poor communication, sickness, staff turnover …

This is important because most bullies don’t see themselves as bullies, they are not inherently evil people.

In their minds they are fighting to “get things done” by being “robust” and delivering hard messages that need to be delivered and forcing through the difficult changes that need to be made.

They may even put “I tell it like it is” in their Twitter profile!*

They justify their “robust” means because, they argue, they deliver the ends.

The thing is, sustained quality is not delivered by coercion, it is delivered by engagement.

High performance comes from motivated skilful employees going above and beyond their job description; every story of a delighted customer is about a smart member of staff doing something extra, taking responsibility and going beyond expectations, perhaps taking a risk.

People only do this if they care, if they feel empowered and supported, and if there is an environment of trust.

Bullies smother this: no one goes the extra mile for a bastard.

Even if the bully gets the thing done today (and gets the bonus and the promotion), they don’t leave a better place in their wake. Pretty much every bully I have seen has left a long-tail of nervous, unhappy and demotivated people, under-performing and lacking in self-confidence (and in some cases with serious health problems).

They may bluster about not being to make an omelette without breaking eggs (technically true for an omelette, less so for the workplace) but this is just an excuse. It’s a post-hoc justification for their default style, a telltale marker for a bad leader who cannot inspire and engage the people they lead. It makes them sound tough, and, because it’s a familiar saying, it sounds truer than it is (although being often attributed to Stalin should be enough to give anyone pause for thought). All it means is that they’re an incompetent leader with the clunky people skills one might liken to a bull picking its way through a china shop rather than a professional employed to deliver results through people.

When skilled managers and leaders need to push for greater performance or deliver change, they practice “tough empathy” (Goffee and Jones, 2006). This means being demanding with regard to the task and holding people to account for delivery, but being kind and supportive to the person. They might break and rebuild processes, but they do so by bringing people with them, not by breaking them into pieces, like an egg.

If there is a performance issue, they manage it with determination and compassion, not lazily slipping into parent ego-state and treating their team like a bunch of naughty children.

Sublethal psychological violence

Anyone thinking this is a recent phenomenon of the snowflake generation is wrong.

The term Workplace Bullying has been around for decades – it was first used by Andrea Adams in her 1992 book Bullying at Work: How to Confront and Overcome It. Prior to this it wasn’t explicitly defined as a thing nor analogised to bullying (a term more associated with the school-yard) but people have been abusing the petty power they get at work since people started working.

The most useful definition I have found is from the Workplace Bullying Institute:

repeated, harmful mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees

They go on to add more detail to the terms used in the definition, but in short it is the repeated actions of someone at work that has a harmful impact on another.

This means it is subjective, it is open to interpretation, meaning that borderline cases that maybe don’t technically quite exactly tick all the boxes of the definition get lost in the hazy grey-area of management styles and personality clashes.

I have coached people on situations where I’ve been unsure if it’s really the case of bullying they claim it to be, thinking it may be a case of a clumsy manager and a sensitive team member … but then I remind myself that this is not court, I am neither judge nor jury, and if repeated actions have a harmful impact, then we have a problem, whether it matches the legal definition or not.

Namie and Namie (2009) described workplace bullying as:

a sublethal and non-physical form of psychological violence

Management and leadership are people professions, and so if that language doesn’t make you sit up and pay attention then you need to get out of the people business right now.

What can we do?

If you hear of a bullying complaint, take it seriously. It might not be technically pass as bullying when measured against a legal yardstick, but if any employee is having a repeated negative impact on another, there’s a problem, whatever we label it.

What if it’s you?

What if you are hearing these complaints about your own behaviour at work?

However unfair it may feel, you need to take it seriously and get better at dealing with the people around you.

A trail of broken eggs is not proof that you’ve produced a single omelette, and so don’t count your chickens and think you’re a hard-hitting go-getter because you’re prepared to make the tough calls and have the difficult conversations.

If you can’t do it with skill, then it’s not me that’s the problem, it’s you.

Footnotes

* Avoid anyone who claims to “tell it like it is” – they are uninteresting to everyone except themselves.

† The phrase is often attributed to Stalin, and you can see why, but the earliest known use of it was by French counter-revolutionary François de Charette (according to phrases.org.uk anyway).

References

Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?: What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader by Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones (2006).

The Bully At Work Gary Namie and Ruth Namie (2009), this reference and the quote I used was taken from a Positive Psychology article: Workplace Bullying: 24 Examples & Ideas to Support Adults by Christina .R. Wilson. (2021) – accessed December 2022.

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