22 Apr 2023

Beating bullying

While we may not have experienced intimidating behaviour ourselves, most of us will have observed it in our playgrounds and classrooms, where bullies repeatedly target, humiliate and harm victims who are smaller, younger and weaker. This is an all too familiar playground problem, often starting as physical aggression and then becoming refined into a more exquisite form of torture, involving spreading rumours, disrupting friendships and social exclusion. It is probable that this oppressive behaviour stems from deep-seated anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, which are not acknowledged but instead are masked by an aggressive, and sometimes ingeniously cruel, display of power. Children should always be encouraged to report bullying, whether they are experiencing it personally or witnessing it taking place, to teachers and parents. If it is not nipped in the bud, this pattern of behaviour can persist into adulthood.

Bullying can be a very real problem in the workplace. Workplace bullying can cover a range of behaviour: verbal abuse, intrusive questions, offensive or sexual remarks, jokes or innuendo-laden remarks made at an individual’s expense. Some bullying is a group phenomenon: a group of individuals bond together to isolate or freeze out a colleague. It can happen between colleagues or, most troubling of all, a boss can bully a junior.

It is a truly toxic situation when a person who holds a position of power and authority abuses their status to bully and demean the people who answer to them, causing maximum shame and humiliation. Frequently the bully asserts his/her dominance by indulging in disinhibited behaviour that we are taught from childhood to suppress – loss of temper, rage, anger, foul language. The assumption is that, because of the bully’s power and status “underlings” are put in a position where they must go along with this behaviour and accept it because they are powerless to do anything else.

Bullying bosses, when challenged, frequently fall back on the defence that they are merely demanding perfectionists, who are calling out the shortcomings in their team members, spurring on their juniors to harder work and better performance. They pride themselves on being ‘tough bosses’, who make huge demands and expect their team to rise to them, and wilfully ignore the stress and anxiety that they generate.

However, inspiring fear and dread is not a good way of motivating people or building a strong team. People work much more effectively if a sense of collaboration and cooperation is nurtured. Courtesy, accessibility and empathy are all qualities that will inspire loyalty and trust in team members, who are much more likely to go the extra mile for a boss they like and respect. Giving credit where credit is due builds confidence, while assaulting an individual’s self-esteem, and sometimes making a public spectacle of it, will inevitably lead to severe stress and debilitation.

Unfortunate employees who are forced to deal with a bullying boss live in dread of becoming the next target and may make superhuman efforts to do the boss’s bidding as a way of protecting themselves, but in the long term this is unsustainable. Eventually team members will be ground down by their boss’s antics and crushed by the constant pressure – they may well leave, taking their expertise with them, or become whistle-blowers, who call out their boss, leading to his/her eventual downfall.

This entire process can take a long time to play out – it is a rare employee who will immediately seek redress for a bullying incident, and many people go through an agonising cycle of humiliation, self-doubt, despair and intimidation, before they grasp the nettle and confide in their colleagues or take their complaint to senior management, their union or human resources.

It is generally considered that behaviour is bullying if it is humiliating, offensive, intimidating, hostile or degrading and this damaging conduct needs to be called out and remedied wherever it is manifested. Bosses who are accused of bullying behaviour will inevitably defend themselves by asserting that their robust behaviour gets good results; they will probably deride their victim for being thin-skinned and over-sensitive, the “can’t you take a bit of banter?” defence. But their behaviour, especially if it is in public, will have been witnessed by many other people, who will be able to corroborate what has happened.

Once a situation has deteriorated to the point where evidence has been gathered, corroboration has been sought and formal complaints have been made, employers must act. They must acknowledge that they are held responsible for the wellbeing of their employees, and they should never condone overtly aggressive or humiliating behaviour in the belief that ‘robust’ business relationships get results.

If a bully is called out and confronted with the distress they have caused, the time has come to confront the consequence of their actions. Abuse should be acknowledged, and the perpetrator must take full responsibility.

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