Time to turn our attention to the needs of the bully?

February 25, 2010

Libby PayneLibby Payne is an executive committee member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association and clinical director of CiC.  She has more than 20 years experience in the provision of workplace counselling and psychological support, specialising in the management of crisis interventions and complex personnel issues within organisations. The opinions expressed are her own. –

Bullying is a fact of life in many organisations, regardless of size or industry sector. And in recent days – for the right or the wrong reasons – the subject of workplace bullying has been thrust into the media and public spotlight. But beyond the headlines, bullying is a problem that organisations need to address and do so in a way that focuses on a positive solution, not a public battle to attribute blame.

To achieve this, greater consideration needs to be given to the bullies themselves. All too often they are positioned as the ‘evil perpetrators, reeking fear and havoc on their team or department without a thought or care for the impact they’re having on their victims’ personal or professional lives.

In most cases of workplace bullying, though, the opposite is true. The bully is often a victim of his or her unmanageable stress and pressure that causes their behaviour to cross the line. Such realisation doesn’t make their behaviour right, tolerable or acceptable, but it does start to offer some explanation for the circumstances victims find themselves in.

Employee assistance programmes are often the first port of call for managers who find themselves accused of bullying their people or have a ‘light bulb moment’ that they need to change their management style and behaviour.

The support available from this type of intervention – as well as other techniques such as workplace coaching – enables the bully to finally realise that their management style and behaviour is not acceptable and needs to change.

Perhaps the bully has never received any formal management training or has come from an industry where ‘command and control’, dictatorial leadership is the unchallenged and accepted norm. Or, as floated earlier, they may feel powerless in their role and as a victim of stress themselves find their only means of coping is interpreted by others as bullying.

Naturally, the impact of this behaviour on the victim cannot be dismissed and their strength to seek support from, for example, employee assistance programmes and other helplines, is to be applauded. This decision and their determination to take is often the catalyst that enables the bully to source the coping mechanisms and assistance they need to change for the better.

Thought must also go to the organisation itself and the challenging position that senior managers and HR teams find themselves in when the ugly shadow of bullying is cast over their business. Although individuals may suspect there is a problem, the corporate body is often the last to know that action needs to be taken.

Of course, reviewing and monitoring the nature and number of calls to employee helplines and the results of staff surveys signal the extent of bullying within the workplace, it’s not enough to know it.

Decisive and positive action needs to be taken to change peoples’ attitudes towards workplace bullying. We all need to put more effort into understanding the bully and why they do what they do. If we can do this, we’re one step closer to solving the problem.

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