We’re all fed up with the reported incidents of bullying that have been dominating the headlines lately. And we have every right to be. I just hope that we’ve reserved a portion of our dismay for the workplace bullies who may lurk in our midst wreaking havoc on folks in the next cubicle, lab or conference room, or yelling, screaming and cussing on the other end of the phone, or from another culture. And well we should because bullying is anathema to who we say we are from the duality of respectful and ethical behavior.
Still not convinced?
Well if money is primarily what motivates you, think about this for a second: According to report after report, workplace bullying can cost a Fortune 500 company millions of dollars annually. In short, workplace bullying can take money out of your pocket.
Wait now, did some of you say, “Hey Howard, here you go blowing smoke again. Bullying doesn’t happen around here because I don’t see it. And besides, nobody’s brought it to my attention, so this is a non-issue.”
Well, there are two problems with that mode of thinking. Problem one is that modern “practitioners” of workplace bullying have gotten slicker and subtler with how they operate and have fine-tuned the art of “kissing up and kicking down.” So you may not witness it.
The second problem is that more often than not, many targets of workplace bullying just keep their mouths shut and grin and bear it, even more so during such tough economic times when the job market is so tight. So it can and does happen.
A universal definition of workplace bullying does not exist. But here’s the definition I’ve used over the years in my “Eradicating workplace bullying” learning lab: Intentional workplace bullying is a pattern of unwelcome (overt and subtle) behaviors on the part of an individual whose actions are aimed at controlling the target of the behavior. The effect is psychological harm thereby hampering the target’s ability to perform his or her job.
In his seminal work, Bully in Sight; How to Predict, Resist, Challenge and Combat Workplace Bullying, the late Tim Fields says that workplace bullying is triggered when “one person, typically (but not necessarily) in a position of power, authority, responsibility, management, etc. feels threatened by another person, usually (but not always) a subordinate who has the qualities of ability, popularity, knowledge, skill, success, etc.” The image of the “schoolyard bully” who engages in verbal threats and physical intimidation is the one that’s naturally conjured up when people think about bullying, an image that’s been hyped in the news media. There are, however, many more subtle and insidious ways to bully others. The worst bullies are those passive-aggressive individuals, usually colleagues, who find subtle ways to bend others to their will.
Workplace bullying raises its head in a variety of ways, among them, according to Tim Fields:
· Pressure bullying or unwitting bullying is where the stress of the moment causes behavior to deteriorate; the person becomes short-tempered, irritable and may shout or swear at others. Many do this from time to time, but when the pressure is removed, the behavior returns to normal, the person recognizes the inappropriateness of their behavior and makes amends.
· Institutional bullying arises when bullying becomes entrenched and accepted as part of the culture. The threat of “agree to this or else,” and increasing workloads as “pay back” are typical manifestations of this form of bullying.
· Economic bullying is an offshoot of institutional bullying characterized by “you better be glad you have a job during these tough economic times.”
· Client bullying is where employees are bullied by those they serve, e.g. staff are bullied by customers. Often the client is claiming their perceived right (e.g. to better service) in an abusive, derogatory manner.
· Serial bullying is where the source of all dysfunction can be traced to one individual, who picks on one employee after another.
· Secondary bullying is mostly unwitting bullying, which people start exhibiting when there’s a serial bully in the department. The pressure of dealing with a divisive serial bully causes everyone’s productivity to decline.
· Gang bullying is a serial bully with colleagues. Gangs can occur anywhere but flourish in corporate climates. If the bully is an extrovert, he or she is likely to be leading from the front; they may also be a shouter and a screamer, and thus easily identifiable. If the bully is an introvert, that person will be in the background initiating the mayhem but probably not taking an active part. Introvert bullies are the most dangerous types.
· Vicarious bullying is where two parties are encouraged to engage in adversarial conflict. One party becomes the bully’s instrument of harassment and is deceived and manipulated into bullying the other party. An example of vicarious bullying is where the serial bully creates conflict between employer and employee, participating occasionally to stoke the conflict, but rarely taking an active part in the conflict himself.
· Regulation bullying is where a serial bully forces their target to comply with rules, regulations or procedures regardless of their appropriateness, applicability or necessity.
· Cyber bullying is the misuse of e-mail systems or the Internet for sending aggressive messages.
OK, now what?
In the end, early intervention can nip bullying in the bud before it escalates into an established pattern, one resulting in a high cost for everyone involved. The key is to name it, describe it and equip everyone involved–the target, the organization, supervisors and third party observers–and “potential bullies” as well, with the courage and tools to stamp out a problem that can destroy productivity. Let’s call this coordinated approach… bullyproofing your environment.
Terry Howard is Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Texas Instruments.
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