Bullying in the workplace

February 26, 2010

yapp-Dr Maria Yapp, CEO Xancam Consulting Ltd (Business Psychology Consultancy). The opinions expressed are her own.-

What is bullying?

Bullying is not restricted only to obvious verbal and physical abuse. More subtle and insidious forms include:  isolation (by preventing access to opportunities; withholding important information); unreasonable demands (in terms of workload, standards or deadlines) or destabilisation (by removing responsibility; giving meaningless tasks; withholding recognition when it is due or inappropriately taking the credit for others’ work).

When such behaviour is frequent, persistent and impacts negatively on a person’s well being, it is described as “bullying”.  People who report being bullied often (but not always) have a sense of being singled out for particularly negative treatment.  There is also often a perceived power disparity – where the “bully” may be seen as more powerful, senior or well-established in the organisation than the “target” – who feels that he or she has limited power to defend themselves.

Why does it happen?

The mainstream view of the bullying industry that has emerged over the last decade or so is firmly victim-centred and attributes blame for bullying either to the personal make up of the bully (that they have psychopathic personality tendencies) or to the organisation’s failure to put in place the right culture and systems to prevent bullying.

A  more dynamic explanation sees bullying not as something that is simply “done to” a person, but as a situation that arises due to a complex interaction between the personality of the “bully”, the personal make- up and attitude of the “target” or “victim” and the prevailing culture and pressures in the business.

People who report they have been bullied score more highly on measures of neuroticism (i.e. anxiety) than others.  This could mean that bullies are more likely to pick on anxious people; that anxious people are more sensitive to negative behaviour by others; are more likely to report it as bullying; or that the experience of being bullied has raised their anxiety levels.

An alternative view is that many cases of alleged bullying are simply part of day-to-day business life.  Surely, some argue, it is understandable that the boss may lose his or her rag on occasion – particularly with the pressures that many businesses face today?

However there is a clear difference between exhibiting drive, impatience and occasional irritation and a systematically targeted campaign of abuse and victimisation that transcends the normal bounds of decent behaviour.

What can you do?

1.  Stop and think – are you actually being bullied or do you need to toughen up and accept some conflict as an inevitable part of business life?
2. Whose problem is it anyway? Remember that disrespectful or abusive behaviour is always a sign of other person’s inner troubles; don’t make their problem your problem
3. Get support – seek the views of colleagues, friends or advisors to gain different perspectives on the situation and identify possible solutions
4. Do some soul searching – is it possible that you have played a part in creating this situation?  If so, think about what you could do to change things
5. Respect yourself – healthy conflict is one thing, but no matter what the circumstances, abusive behaviour is simply not acceptable; be clear that you will not tolerate it.

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