Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Organisations are strange and complex social environments. They are fraught with dynamics and undercurrents that ebb and flow beneath the surface.

It should be no surprise then that, not unlike the school playground, the phenomena of bullies, cliques, and favouritism run rampant.

As managers no matter how hard we strive for objectivity, we are imperfect subjective creatures.

It is better to acknowledge this fact – that we have irrational likes and dislikes – that we tend to favour people more for some reasons, and less for others.

Sometimes we do or do not favour people we find similar to ourselves, or sometimes for irrational reasons perhaps only our subconscious might understand.

How does this relate to bullying at the workplace?

Well at times, those unconscious biases, coupled with certain insecurities or under-developed skill sets lead to bullying.

It is hard to tell how aware the bully is of what they’re doing.

For the bullied, it can make work a living hell.

Bullying can come from any level of the organization – and from any department.

Here are a few signs  you may be being bullied:

  • You are constantly singled out for criticism in front of your peers
  • Harsh feedback – inconsistent to that of your peers
  • You are humiliated or mocked in public
  • Your efforts are sabotaged by peers or seniors
  • You are spoken to and treated disrespectfully
  • Efforts are made to intimidate you
  • You are the subject of malicious gossip or rumours
  • People gang up on you

Bullying Impacts Your Performance

Understand that over a period of time, bullying especially with regard to performance, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, if you’re told that you’re terrible at your job every single day, your behaviour tends to change to reflect that.

The Difference Between Bullying and Negative Feedback

Negative feedback for your work is not the same as bullying. It is the manner and the approach in which it happens as well as the intent. Is the intent to correct something or is it to hurt you?

This is where, in spite of all our emotions, we need to look at a situation as objectively as possible. And while the line is faint at times, it is there.

If a manager corrects something – to help the performance of the team, or scolds someone for something that could have had dire consequences then they are protecting the team, regardless of the quality of the delivery.

Bullying is intended to be destructive, and is an attack meant to undermine the other person’s self-worth.

What to do if you’re being bullied at work:

If you are being bullied at work, the following steps may help

  1. Recognize that what’s happening to you is wrong – that is often the hardest thing to do
  2. Rebuild and protect your self-confidence – because in these situations that is what takes the biggest beating
  3. Work up the courage to face your bully once – after all they are just another human being. It may not work, but at least doing that opens the door to other escalation options
  4. Escalate if possible
  5. Don’t expect help from bystanders – they are often too afraid to step in – and in some ways this position is understandable. It is difficult to put yourself out there for another because at the end of the day everyone fears for their own job security
  6. Get help – remember, bullying takes a huge toll on your self – esteem – and if you want to move on to better opportunities, you need to have a very clear view of your strengths and opportunities. Therapy and / or coaching are great options here.
  7. Remember most of all, that you deserve respect. If you are working with sincerity, regardless of your performance, you deserve that much.
  8. In any difficult situation, think of what you would want to say you did in your next job interview – and as scary as it is, be that person.

If you see a colleague being bullied, encourage them to take the steps above. Remind them you are there for them – because more than anything – bullied employees feel alone.

We cannot change the bullies, but we can at least try and off-set some of the impact they have on us. And that will be a bumpy road, and you won’t do it perfectly, but you’ll emerge stronger than ever before.

To whoever needs to hear this: this too shall pass.