When we think of bullying, school kids come to mind, fueled by the all-too-many headlines about teen suicide. Bullying, however, is a problem that is increasing in the culture and in the workplace.

What is bullying?

Bullying is a repeated pattern of negative aggressive behavior that usually involves a person in a more powerful position, inflicting intimidating, offensive and humiliating behaviors on others with less power. This repeated unwanted behavior — verbal or physical, blatant or subtle, active or passive – can undermine a person’s dignity, safety and well-being. A sense of powerless grows as the target believes that the unwanted behavior will continue without intervention.

What bullying is not.

It is not interpersonal conflict, harassment, discrimination or a tough boss.  It is also not incivility, simple rudeness or the routine exercise of acceptable managerial prerogative.

How do we identify bullying?

First, be careful about labeling someone a ‘bully.‘  Consider whether the behavior is directed only towards certain individuals or is it consistent conduct? Is the perspective that someone is a bully shared or is it the experience of one person who feels intimidated by the actions and behavior of another? Some people do render themselves powerless — often expecting others to change rather than consider more assertive or self-respecting behavior for themselves. Take care not to automatically suggest that a situation or dynamic is the ‘fault’ of a bully or that an insecure or passive person is a ‘victim.’ The truth may lie in between.

Is it possible that one person might see behavior as bullying and another would not?

What may really matter is why a person who experiences a bully as such, is so powerfully affected by their behavior and how that person could be supported to find more effective ways to respond. It may not always be appropriate to focus solely on the bully, which would reinforce a sense of powerlessness in those being bullied. Some folks may be overly sensitive or feel quite helpless and are intimidated by people who are direct or assertive. Perhaps they lack the ability to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries for themselves.

Instead, think about the impact of the bully’s conduct, consider why that is so, acknowledge that it may not be the same for everyone, and look at how a person might act in their own best interests when it happens. For instance, we can assert our right and capacity to ask someone not to shout when speaking to us. We can then make our own choice about whether we wish to engage with that person if they persist in shouting. This is true when dealing with authority figures as well as peers.

Why do people bully others?

Bullies often attempt to overcome a sense of weakness or fear in themselves by attacking ‘targets.’ When they are able to hurt or intimidate others, they may briefly feel less anxious or more powerful about themselves. Afraid to be seen as inferior, they try to empower themselves by diminishing others. Bullies tend towards black and white thinking, “either you’re with me or against me.” Finally, they tend to be suspicious, hold grudges and often feel victimized.

Unfortunately, bully personalities are often not self-aware and may not realize how they sound or impact others. True bullies tend to have enduring patterns of dysfunctional behaviors; many have personality disorders. These individuals are not introspective, tend to blame others, are reactive and manipulative and often create conflict to deflect their own fears of inadequacy and fail to regulate their own behavior.

What is the impact of bullying in the workplace?

According to the Bureau of National Affairs, American businesses spend $5 to $6 million per year on workplace bullying.  Bulling manifests in many ways that include:

• Anxiety and/or depression in employees

• Employees’ detachment from work and customers

• Psychosomatic symptoms or PTSD in workers

• A high rate of absenteeism and turnover

• Diminishing quality and quantity of work

• Increased health insurance costs for the employer

• Increased worker compensation claims and law suits

• A negative corporate reputation

How can individuals deal with bullies?

  1. Don’t take bullying personally or become self-critical. Bullying behavior is about the bully, not the target.
  2. Get help. Talk to someone in authority or to co-workers. Do not isolate yourself or try to stop the bully alone.
  3. Research your organization’s policy about bullying and identify a resource person to talk with.
  4. Don’t tolerate a hostile work environment. You don’t have to be stuck.
  5. Do not take offense at anything you can’t change. Being offended without taking action causes aggravation and high blood pressure.
  6. Do not look for trouble because we find what we look for. Wayne Dyer cautions, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at will change.”
  7. Do not take things personally that aren’t personal.

What steps can be taken to prevent workplace bullying?

  1. Establish and enforce corporate policies to ensure a civil and safe workplace.
    • Leadership responsibility
    • Define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors
  2. Provide training for effective communication and conflict management skills to promote a respectful corporate culture.
  3. Establish confidential lines of communication for complaint and investigation procedures.
  4. Establish and enforce procedures for handling disciplinary actions and grievances
  5. Perform periodic audits of internal communication processes.