Workplace Bullying: It’s Ugly, It’s Complex and the Solution Might Not Be What You Think

These days the grim topic of workplace bullying is getting talked about a lot where I live. Everyone agrees that it should not be happening. Nobody seems to be quite sure how to correct the problem although, predictably, social media flash mobs are forming to seek the ritual sacrifice (read; public firing) of senior leaders as a form of organizational expiation.

Reflecting on my own working life as a leader at many organizational levels I realize that I have seen bullying.  Sometimes I tried to stop it – other times, particularly when I was younger, I pretended not to see it. I have been the recipient of workplace bullying more than once (that’s hard to admit). Have I bullied others? I don’t believe so, but like most humans I can be very blind to my own failings. If you ever worked for me and feel differently about your experience, contact me and I’ll do what I can to make things right.

I am firmly convinced that, except in very rare cases, workplace bullying does not happen because the bully believes that what they are doing is right. Bullying happens, in large part, because the bully is afraid. Someone once described organizations as, “devices for making good people do bad things”. Chris Argyris, the Harvard professor whom I tend to quote a lot, noted that what he called “Model One Behaviour” emerges when people feel threatened. These are interactions characterized by a drive to control and to “win” – a form of behaviour that is at the very root of bullying.

So, if bullying is prevalent in your organization, I would urge you to start thinking about what your people might be afraid of and what you can do to change that.

Most importantly, take some time and ask yourself “what am I afraid of”? What are the workplace pressures and conflicts that could lead to me starting to bully those that I hold power over? How can I make it easier for me to show up as my best self despite these forces that might drive me to “Model One Behaviour”? How will I implement these practices? Whom can I look to who will compassionately “name the real” in my own behaviour and interactions and hold me to account?

If we want to fix workplace bullying, then the process must start with this sort of self-examination. Anti-bullying training, confidential reporting systems, independent investigative bodies (the sort of interventions normally recommended) are all valuable, but they are merely means of managing the problem – symptom control. If you want truly want to strike at the root cause of bullying, look within and invite the other leaders in the organization to do the same

Are you afraid that the pressures and contradictions of your workplace are starting to undermine your determination to be a confident, capable and compassionate leader? Do you fear that a day is coming when your anxiety may become too much to manage and the “Model One Monster” will come bursting out of you?  Contact me and let’s have a confidential talk about it!