By Angela Bagum, Specialist Clinical Work Focused Practitioner at Add | Wellbeing
15 – 19 November is anti-bullying week, this year titled ‘One Kind Word’. The intention being that if we can start with one kind word, we can begin to foster kindness in the workplace and counteract bullying. It is of course a start to an issue that isn’t just confined to the school playground but also likely to be being experienced in the school staffroom. Anti-bullying week is an attempt to raise awareness that bullying happens everywhere- including the workplace. But how can we really support effective change beyond anti-bullying week that embeds a culture of human-ness towards understanding bullying in the context of the organisation?
Workplace culture is not just created through people but through task orientated performance and delivery of work. This is often defined within a hierarchical structure carried out through working relationships. It is no surprise then, that reports of bullying are often experienced through power dynamics and how some of the tasks associated with the work can be used to exert control over someone else. The experience can leave people feeling extremely anxious and scared about going into work resulting for some, in long-term sickness absence. Under the Equality’s Act 2010, bullying is defined under harassment and under protected characteristics of race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, or belief.
According to the CIPD, the Human Resources Professional body, (2021), bullying can range from persistent remarks, criticism, shouting and unwanted attention to being set impossible deadlines that are unachievable. All types of concerning behaviour! Yet for some, these can become an everyday occurrence normalised within the work environment and tolerated by all who may witness the behaviour, but rather than challenge it turn a blind eye because it may not directly affect them. That can make it even harder for someone to feel as though they can exercise their rights, and the boundaries of what they can be expected to tolerate, because when they try to do that they are met with further indifference.
The detrimental effects to someone’s sense of self and wellbeing can be at a cost not just to just their emotional health but their physical health too (Xu et al). Some people, in a bid to stop this and prevent further damage to sense of self may see their only option is to leave the workplace.
What appears to be continually spoken to in employment law, and affirmed through anti-bullying trainings, is that for some people who engage in bullying behaviour their position is often one of ignorance – an obliviousness even. Or that they felt encouraged to act in accordance with their role and were just doing their job. There can be a fear, of course, about taking ownership over the nature of their behaviour, due to the societal difficulty of being viewed as a perpetrator of sorts. The difficulty then, is that there is no internal acknowledgement – or opportunity for change. Even though this kind of situation is an organisational responsibility under employment law, organisations might not always be willing to acknowledge this, and instead label it as two individuals having a “personality clash”. Of course, there will be a dynamic between these individuals but what appears to have been lost here is the context of where they both are situated – in the workplace.
Working in the field of mental health and understanding what happens within groups, we know that anxiety, even if it is just the anxieties that come with trying to work well together, always exists to some extent within teams. The tasks and pressures associated with the work can promote further anxiety. This can mean that members of a group or team can unconsciously locate their anxiety in someone else, so that they hold and represent the vulnerability for the group, freeing up others to feel less anxious. This can also work for someone who may uphold an antagonistic style of behaviour – freeing up others from such uncomfortable ways of feeling. In both examples the person who gets used in a certain way by a group (unconsciously) will already of course, have a susceptibility- a predisposed state to work in this way.
In the second example, the antagonistic person might also be seen (or see themselves) as a can-do person – someone who ‘can get the job done’. In acting that out they might in the process cause another distress. Similarly a middle manager may be keen to show their worth and ability, and so might engage in a leadership style that is confidently overly task focused – and means that they are perceived by their team as someone who gets taken seriously but doesn’t leave room for anything else. Sadly, this might be due to a lack of understanding about effective leadership due to inexperience, but it may well also be that they are protecting their own internal vulnerability – which can get in the way of being sensitive to the vulnerabilities of others, and to the mis-use of power.
There may also be a culture of leadership in the hierarchy that expects managers to ‘pull others into line’ or demands constant unachievable outcomes – requiring a level of emotional intelligence and courage to be able to push this expectation back up. That can feel like a real challenge, that may leave a manager feeling caught in the crossfire head on, needing to consider how they make sense of the demands being made. For some people, it may feel easier to impose that pressure and challenge ‘down’ to their direct reports rather than ‘up’ to senior leaders.
There may even be a practical issue where an individual’s role is unclear. Or perhaps they are managed by more than one person, causing confusion and placing unnecessary demands on the individual to perform. When they do not appear to be doing so, criticism may be placed upon them as an individual, as opposed to looking at the systemic issues that have created the situation.
So, being conscious of these issues, and in the spirit of anti-bullying week, how might the organisation take responsibility for this early on in a way that promotes a responsibility towards wellbeing and retention of staff?
Foster organisational compassion
Compassionate leadership recognises that performance is part of the work and that we must be supported to do it. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be honest with our colleagues or offer feedback about their process, but instead we do it with kindness and awareness. This also means challenging difficult behaviour such as bullying. Not an easy task, especially when in a power dynamic.
But what about colleagues working alongside you? They too may have a responsibility to promote a culture of awareness, and therefore call out behaviour that needs to be noticed. This is where the organisation can enable this process, by being clear as to what types of behaviour it doesn’t promote. But how do we forge spaces for recognising what those behaviours may be? It’s important to promote healthier working practices that incorporate check-ins, as part of team mornings, a social connecting in a way that promotes wellbeing. In his book Compassionate Leadership, Michael West explains that often difficult behaviour inclusive of bullying, is likely to fall to the situation people are in rather than it being just about personality (West 2021). Although directed at health and social care, this is true in all organisations!
Therefore, awareness and empathy sit at the heart of organisational compassion, but it must be extended to self-first. Self-compassion means taking time for ourselves, and modelling that before we can extend it out towards others. We can’t expect someone else to tolerate something we wouldn’t.
As individuals we can: offer 1 kind word and 3 going forward
- One kind word- starts with self and offer it out to colleagues/team
- Promote self-compassion – we are creating our own healthy boundaries in relation to our work that means we can have time to think, pause and nurture ourselves.
- Compassionate flow– support colleagues and team by showing this in your behaviour towards your colleagues. This is not promoting compassion fatigue (see number 1) but providing a boundaried space for discussions, actively listening and giving reflective transparent feedback to support colleagues (see Professor Paul Gilbert Link below)
- Check in with yourself – if in a leadership role: take the time to discern your style of leadership towards your colleagues. What are you noticing that cannot be said directly to you? How might you perceive others’ vulnerability within the workplace? Promote an openness around the work with clear goals, opportunity for creative involvement of others, understanding of one another’s roles to promote trust and outward flow.
If you are experiencing bullying, name it if you can and express how someone’s style may be making you feel. By doing this, you’re bringing something into consciousness and, in the process, taking some power back in a situation where you may feel powerless. Importantly, if the issue persists, seek to raise it with the organisation through a whistleblowing mechanism, HR or your manager’s manager who have a legal responsibility to manage it and support you. Importantly also speak to your GP to get support for your wellbeing.
CIPD (2021) Bullying and Harassment Available at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/harassment/factsheet#gref [accessed November 2021]
West, A. M (2021) Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care The Swirling Leaf Press.
Xu, T, Hanson, L.M.L, Lange, L, Starkopf, H, Westerlung, Madson,I.E.H, Ruglies, R, Pentti, J, Stenholm, S, Vahtera, J, Hansen, A.M, Virtanen, M, Kivimaki, M & Rod, N.H (2018) ‘Workplace Bullying and Violence as Risk Factors for cardiovascular disease: a multi-cohort study’ Oxford Academic: European Heart Journal Volume 40. no 14, pp 1124-1134