By Dr. Robyn Short, CEO of Workplace Peace Institute
At one time or another, many of us have been affected by workplace bullies — either directly or indirectly. Two surveys, one by Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and the other by Zogby International, define bullying as, “repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevent work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation and humiliation.” The WBI study found that as much as 35 percent of workers have experienced bullying. Even more astonishing is that the vast majority of bullies sit in management and executive seats, which means they are able to leverage their power to suppress complaints against them.
Although bullies are often the catalyst of short-term spikes in production, the behavior is insidious to creating long-term productivity. In fact, a study conducted by John Medina found that individuals who are bullied in the workplace performed 50 percent worse on cognitive tests than their non-bullied counterparts. Another study, this one conducted by Dr. Noreen Tehrani, found that individuals who experience workplace bullying exhibit similar psychological and physical symptoms — such as nightmares and anxiety — as victims of violence from Northern Ireland and soldiers returning from overseas combat.
The impact of workplace bullying is far more significant than hurt feelings. It actually hurts the brain, and it hurts the heart.
A study conducted by Anna Nyberg of the Stress Institute in Stockholm of more than 3,100 men in a typical workplace environment over the course of a 10-year period found that employees with bullying supervisors — defined as incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative — were 60 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or other life-threatening heart conditions.
Recognizing Workplace Bullying
According to Workplace Bullying Institute, there are subtle and not so subtle behaviors indicative of bullying. The following 20 signs can be difficult to detect until patterns are well established, which can takes months or years. Yet, the anxiety and emotional upset they cause are felt each time the behavior is presented.
Deceit: Repeatedly lying in order to get his or her way; creating false hopes with no plans to fulfill them
Intimidation Using fear-inducing language and behavior
Ignoring: Failing to invite someone to a meeting; purposefully avoiding the person or being selective in the attention that is paid
Isolation/exclusion: Excluding someone intentionally or making them feel socially or physically isolated from a group, as well as excluding individuals from decisions, conversations and work-related events
Rationalization: Constantly justifying or defending bullying behavior
Minimization: Discounting or failing to address someone’s legitimate concerns or feelings
Diversion: Dodging issues, acting oblivious or changing the subject to distract away from particular issues (i.e., canceling meetings, no-showing meetings and avoiding people)
Shame and guilt: Making an individual constantly feel that they are the problem; shaming them for no real wrongdoing or making them feel inadequate and unworthy
Undermining work: Deliberately delaying and/or blocking an individual’s work; repeated betrayal; promising projects and then giving them to others; alternating supportive and undermining behavior
Pitting employees against each other: Attempting to drive competition by pitting employees against one another; establishing a “winners and losers” culture; encouraging employees to turn against one another
Removal of responsibility: Removing someone’s responsibilities; changing his or her role; or replacing aspects of his job without cause
Impossible or changing expectations: Not establishing a job description or key areas of responsibilities; setting nearly impossible expectations and work guidelines; changing those expectations frequently so employees cannot be successful
Constant change and inconsistency: Constantly changing expectations, guidelines and scope of assignments; inconsistency of word and action
Mood swings: Sharp and sudden shifts in emotions
Criticism: Constantly criticizing someone’s work or behavior
Withholding information: Intentionally withholding information from someone or giving them the wrong information
Projection of blame: Shifting blame to others and using them as a scapegoat
Taking credit: Taking credit for other people’s ideas and contributions without acknowledging them
Seduction: Using excessive flattery and compliments to gain trust, lower their defenses, and be more responsive to manipulative behavior
Creating a feeling of uselessness: Making an individual feel underused; intentionally rarely delegating or communicating with the employee about their work or progress; persistently giving employees unfavorable duties and responsibilities
The following bullying behaviors are far more overt and easily recognizable.
Aggression: Yelling or shouting at an individual; exhibiting aggression verbally or non-verbally (e.g. pounding a desk, ripping up work)
Intrusion: Intruding on someone by unnecessarily lurking around their desk
Coercion: Aggressively persuading someone to say or do something against his or her better judgment
Punishment: Undeservedly punishing an individual psychologically through passive aggression or emotionally through isolation
Belittling: Disparaging someone or their opinions, ideas, work or personal circumstances in an undeserving manner
Embarrassment: Degrading or humiliating an individually in front of others
Revenge: Seeking unfair revenge when a mistake happens; retaliating against an employee
Threats: Threatening unwarranted punishment, discipline, termination and/or emotional or psychological abuse
Offensive communication: Using profanity, demeaning jokes, untrue rumors or gossip or harassment
Campaigning: Launching an overt or underhanded campaign to diminish a person in hopes of forcing them to leave the job or the organization
Blocking advancement or growth: Impeding an individual’s progression, growth and/or advancement in the organization unfairly
How to Manage Workplace Bullying
There are several approaches that can be effective in managing workplace bullies.
Communication is critical to managing bullies, but it takes courage and emotional regulation. Following are several tips for managing bullies in the moment when the behavior is occurring:
Self-regulate. Aggressive behavior can be very psychologically and emotional jarring, causing the fight or flight mechanism to kick in. Focus on breathing to ensure a consistent flow of oxygen reaches the brain so the ability to remain present and alert is possible.
Label the behavior and recommend a different behavior. Label the behavior — not the person. This lets the person know you are aware of his or her action actions and informs him on how he might behave differently.
Active listen. Restate or paraphrase what was heard. This serves a dual purpose of confirming the listener correctly heard and understood what the speaker said and also provides the opportunity to verify that it was interpreted accurately. This practice allows both parties the ability to gain important insight into the emotions and feelings of one another and humanizes each other in the process.
Engage a conflict coach. A conflict coach can help one or both parties learn to communicate more collaboratively and productively. Individuals who rely on bullying as a management tactic tend to behave aggressively because it is a default mode of communication — they have not learned to manage effectively. With coaching, each person can clean up communication and increase trust.
Mediation can be very effective in managing disputes or chronic bullying behaviors as it allows all parties involved to share their perspectives on the issue or issues and invites them to “walk in the shoes” of the other parties, so they can gain a deeper understanding of each person’s perspective on the situation. Together, and with the help of the mediator, the parties are able to envision and create a new path forward. This new path forward may include what behaviors will and will not be tolerated, how disputes will be managed in the future, what actions will be implemented to course correct when bullying behaviors are presented. The agreement may even include reparations: How the person who offended or bullied individuals repair the harm that was done by the behaviors. The power of mediation lies in the fact that the individuals involved in the dispute are given the opportunity to resolve the disputes in a manner most meaningful, and therefore effective, to them.
Because mediation requires the participation of all parties involved in a dispute, it may not be a viable option. Let’s face it: The bully may have no interest in changing his or her behavior, and, therefore, may refuse to participate in mediation. If mediation is not a viable solution, conflict coaching can be a effective alternative. Conflict coaching is conducted on an individual basis in a one-on-one process. The individual experiencing the bullying can learn conflict resolution skills that may de-escalate the bullying behavior while enhancing his or her own understanding of the issues at hand. Conflict coaching allows the individual to learn strategies and skills for engaging with the offending party.
Workplace bullying can have a significant impact on a person's emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being. Effectively managing destructive behavior in the workplace is not just critical to professional success, but it is also critical to personal well-being. Engaging a dispute resolution professional as soon as bullying behavior is recognized can minimize the impact of bullying behavior and transform the destructive relationship into a productive one.
An international speaker, peace-building trainer and mediator with expertise in restorative justice and transformative mediation models, Dr. Robyn Short works with individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. In addition to her mediation and conflict training practice through Workplace Peace Institute, Dr. Short is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University in the Master of Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution program, the Master of Leadership and Negotiation at Bay Path University, and Lipscomb University's Master in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution. She has guest lectured at Pepperdine University and Creighton University. Dr. Short has authored four books on peace building.