Bullying and other oppressive practices have become a common yet frequently overlooked leadership style. It’s relatively simple to create new policies, processes, and programs to address these issues. But shifting the attitudes, behaviors, and belief systems of the people within an organization is a different ball game altogether – and it starts with you.
When you think of bullying, the first thing that may pop into your mind would be high school. A nerd with glasses and suspenders getting thrown into a locker by a gigantic football jock. Or maybe you think of that snobbish group of girls in middle school who would always pick on your hair and talk about your clothes. So glad those times are over, right? Wrong.
Bullying doesn’t end when you graduate high school. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, bullying is defined as the “abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger, more powerful, etc.” Numerous situations exist where balances of power can become distorted, such as in a friend group where your more outspoken friend always decides where your crew is going to eat. Or within family dynamics, where a sibling constantly belittles you in front of your parents. Or perhaps in a diverse office filled with people from different backgrounds all together in one place, the workplace can definitely be a prime spot for bullying.
Imagine spending eight hours a day in a place where you are frequently on edge and don’t feel safe. A recent Monster.com survey revealed that almost 90% of workers reported being bullied at their place of employment. Additionally, 51% said they were bullied by their boss or manager. Coworkers accounted for 39% of bullying in the workplace. Constant bullying can trigger physical, mental, and emotional health problems, such as high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, stress, anxiety, and depression. A toxic work environment will often manifest itself in employees impacted by bullying through low productivity, absenteeism, and poor morale. Bullying can also weaken employee judgment and create safety risks, because when bullied workers are more likely to forget safety procedures.
Dealing with bullies is something most people will be forced to face at least once in their lives. Understanding why the person behaves this way can help you understand how to stop them. Insecure people simply aren’t happy with themselves. When individuals feel this way, they may engage in bullying to bring others down to their perceived level. Likewise, when an individual feels powerless in their own life, it may trigger bullying. This person feels powerful when intimidating others. Someone insecure is also afraid to look weak in front of others, so to hide their own weaknesses, they strive to find and expose others’ weaknesses.
The need to control is another reason people bully. Some people partake in bullying to gain control of their environment. For example, they may lack control over the way they are treated at home.
Bullying behavior can be advantageous when the person who does it gets exactly what they want. Every time a person who bullies comes out on top, it reinforces their actions. When they control and manipulate others, they usually achieve what they set out to do: manipulate and control. Bullies can also have their behavior justified if others encourage them and join in. This gives them the attention they desire.
There are several strategies to combat bullying in the workplace. For organizational and departmental leaders, it is essential to review current policies and procedures. Do the policies and procedures address bullying and steps to address problematic instances that exist in the workplace? Have you explicitly outlined expectations for professional behavior and appropriate interactions between coworkers? Is there a step-by-step, comprehensive process for reporting and properly addressing bullying?
It is critical for leaders to set a precedence of processing bullying complaints fairly and establishing a standard investigation process to evaluate every reported incident. Useful methods may include toll-free hotlines that employees can call to report instances of bullying, or creating a disciplinary policy for instigators of bullying. It can be incredibly helpful to provide ongoing training for all employees on the protocol for respectful communication as well as the respective consequences for not adhering to employee communication guidelines. Employees need to know which behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable so that they will be prepared to handle incivility and bullying when it occurs.
Departmental managers and supervisors should always listen to employee concerns both formally and informally. Being in closer proximity to employees than senior-level leaders, these leaders have an increased awareness of sudden shifts and pattern changes in employee behaviors and actions. It is important to address any concerns and all forms of employee aggression, no matter how insignificant the incidence may seem. Departmental leaders must respectfully attend to employee concerns regarding any form of verbal, electronic, or physical aggression in a timely fashion, preferably following the particular occurrence. Most importantly, departmental leaders should model respectful behavior by treating their employees with genuine respect and dignity at all times, while encouraging conscientious behavior and personal interactions at all times through staff meetings and communication channels. Employees look to managers and supervisors to set the overall tone for workplace behavior.
If you are being bullied in the workplace, you need to know paths to take to ensure you can return to being in a comfortable workplace environment. Before the bully has a chance to make you a long-term target, promptly address any mistreatment you feel you have experienced. Speaking up at that moment will leave a long-lasting impact on how the bully perceives you. Utilize confident body language to send an efficient message. Don’t let things carry on for long without saying anything. Letting it go and delaying confrontation might result in a power imbalance that will be difficult to break later on.
It is also important to document your abuse, especially if you plan to report the bully later. For example, if you’re at lunch and the bullying occurs, go back to your desk and write down all the details. Keeping documentation of what was said, who said it, when, where, and why will give you the ability to provide concrete examples of the behaviors you’re describing to the person you’re reporting the abuse to.
Remember that it starts with you. Take a look at your own action and your current work environment to understand how you’re being perceived and/or treated. If you’re being treated unfairly, have you brought this issue to the person’s attention or asked them to stop (if it is safe to do so)? Have you given them an opportunity to understand your perception and a chance to change their behavior? Are you treating others respectfully through your actions, words or digital communication? No matter how many other policies or programs are put into place, the root cause of bullying rests in the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of the people that make up the entire workplace. A shift in any of these systems begins with a look in the mirror.
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