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When Is a ‘Workplace Bully’ Not a ‘Workplace Bully’?

Last week, I wrote my blog on what you should do if you feel you’re being bullied in the workplace. I have to say that I’ve been blown away by some of the feedback that I’ve had to the piece, both directly from friends and also on LinkedIn where the article was originally published. One friend of mine had just gone through a very difficult and painful bullying situation in her workplace and, while it has since been resolved, she forwarded the piece to her HR team as she knew how important this topic is.

This week’s blog has come from one comment that I received in one of the LinkedIn groups that I do wish to share. I share this because I actually agree with much of what this person writes and it provides an interesting additional point that can only enrich this conversation further.

Dawn wrote, “ If you are ‘feeling bullied’, you should confront your colleague and say that their behaviour is offending your dignity at work. It may feel uncomfortable to say but you are being fair, you are giving the ‘bully’ the opportunity to change. Not all people who engage in bullying behaviour are a bully, but they may be a little insensitive to the feelings of others so this needs to be pointed out. And when you make your diary notes, make the note of this conversation. Highlight your feelings in a calm manner.”

Now, Dawn is correct in that the most mature, adult way to handle a bullying situation in the first instance is to sit down with the person who is behaving in an unacceptable and potentially bullying manner and to explain to them why their behaviour is unacceptable. In a sense, you’re creating boundaries which are clearly missing for the person with the offensive behaviour and establishing them could be all that is needed to have the behaviour cease.

Career Coach and Human Resource Specialist, Skye London, wrote a piece this week around ‘the office jerk’. In many ways, the behaviour that she notes in her article can come from people who lack emotional and social intelligence, and who have no bad intentions at all. Left unaddressed and allowed to continue though, this behaviour could eventually see them being labelled ‘a bully’ if it continues to impact on the wellbeing of their fellow employees. Remember, it is their behaviour that ends up landing them with that label in the first place.

I’m reminded of one guy I used to work with who was quite brilliant, very intelligent, well liked and didn’t have a negative intention in his body yet he would occasionally drop a joke that was completely inappropriate and risked upsetting people. When we would explain to him how it was unacceptable, he would often be mortified at his own behaviour and it would stop. This doesn’t make him a good or bad person – simply one who didn’t recognise how his humour may be seen as offensive to some people. In those moments, he addressed the situation, and owned and changed his behaviour. Clearly, he was not a bully.

But there is another side to this coin. Imagine for a moment that you have a Manager or team mate who is overtly aggressive. Imagine that they would constantly yell at you in front of others, going red in the face trying to contain their rage. Imagine that they might talk negatively about you and your work performance with other staff within ear shot of you. Imagine that there was a constant complaint from them of ‘not good enough’. Got someone in mind like that? Good!

Now, do you feel like you can approach them and talk openly about their behaviour? How do you honestly feel about them? Can you imagine the level of courage and confidence that would be needed to do that? Can you imagine how eroded that confidence and courage may be if the exposure to that behaviour has been long term?

Of course you’re going to really struggle talk to them.

You’re going to be terrified that they’re going to use your vulnerability and openness to talk as a weakness and turn it around on you. Chances are they might. And if you feel that this is honestly going to happen, then it would not be wise to sit down with them in an attempt to reconcile it one on one.

And quite honestly, why does a ‘bully’ get labelled a ‘bully’? Because they’re acting out bullying behaviour. If it quakes like a duck and walks like a duck…

They might not recognise it themselves. They might tell you to suck it up, or to attempt to rationalise their behaviour by blaming it on their level of stress or others, or even go for some philosophical approach about listening to what they say instead of the way they say it however it doesn’t excuse the behaviour. Regardless, they need to own the behaviour and realise that they’re causing damage to others and to their workplace.

If they’ve been that aggressive that somebody in the organisation (or multiple people) are so beaten down that they don’t believe they’re good enough at what they do nor that anything matters anymore because ‘nothing will ever change’, then that is a sign that there is a bully in the midst who is making the culture purely toxic. Statistically, people who have been previously bullied are twice as likely to have suicidal ideation compared to those who have not been bullied. When you consider how much self worth people place in their jobs, you can understand that an attack on their ability to perform their job can often be an attack on their very identity. Consider the stress of potentially losing the job, especially if you have a family to support or living close to the poverty line. These are all things that can truly tip people over the edge.

I do want to stress, this is not about being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. There are lots of good natured people out there who have behaviours in the workplace that are unacceptable, and this is simply down to the fact that they haven’t developed the skills to manage other people, or outcomes, or their own level of stress and anxiety. So where do they need to start? The answer is obviously themselves and, given the right nudge, many people will look at personal development to help create new coping strategies and skills in these situations. It’s the ones that don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong and who justify it by blaming others that you need to be truly careful about.

It ultimately comes down to ‘coping strategies’ for both parties. Day to day work life is going to be full of stresses and different personality types. Does the person being bullied have the coping strategy to deal with the stress and anxiety caused in a healthy way as well as the ability to maintain or build their confidence and courage? Does the person who is doing the bullying behaviour have the vulnerability and courage to explore why they have this behaviour and to consider other ways of communication and building connection? We all have to get along and we all have to play a part however we all have to begin by agreeing that bullying behaviour is completely unacceptable in any form.

Folks, I know this is a dark topic but one that needs to be discussed so that people can understand they’re not alone and to feel empowered with knowledge about what to do. As I showed in my previous blog, statistically, 50% of Australians will experience bullying in the workplace at some point in their careers. This is an absolutely staggering statistic. 50% of all Australians will be subjected to an environment that erodes their self confidence and their ability to perform their job (and, potentially, subsequent jobs). Unless we continue to work with each other to ensure boundaries are established, excuses laid to rest, owning their behaviour and everyone treated with the level of respect they would expect for themselves, then we can only expect this costly and dangerous trend to continue.

If you feel like you’re being bullied and you need assistance, refer to my previous blog for links to websites that will offer you guidance and advice.

Experiencing Bullying At Work? Find Control. Book a Session NOW!

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Lawrence Akers

About Lawrence Akers

My approach is simple; I work with clients to determine what they want to get rid of, what they want instead and what that gap in their resources are that is preventing them from doing it. My focus is not just on motivation but on the capability to do it as well.