Updated: Sep 14, 2021
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.
According to Workplace Bullying Institute, the following are just a few of a long list of behaviors indicative of a bully:
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
Minimization: Discounting or blatantly failing to address someone’s legitimate concerns or feelings
Shame and guilt: Making employees constantly feel that they are the problem, shaming them for no real wrongdoing or making them feel inadequate and unworthy
So, what can a person do when a bully is wracking havoc on the workplace? Focus on cleaning up workplace communication. Communication is critical to managing bullies, but it takes courage and emotional regulation. Following are several tips for creating clear and clean communication:
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.
Bullies exist in almost every work environment. Learning to keep the peace by cleaning up communication can increase collaboration and build a pathway to trust, which is paramount to emotional and physical well-being.
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.