When you notice a conflict between two employees in your organization, you probably don’t immediately assume that one is bullying the other. You might think that their personalities are just too different for them to get along. Perhaps one has a tough management style. Or maybe one is just being a little too sensitive. Whatever the case, it’s easy to chalk up a conflict to a harmless workplace disagreement — one in which both people are equally to blame and simply need some coaching or management training.
Unfortunately, these conflicts may be true bullying and they often go unnoticed in the workplace.
In a bullying conflict, each party is not an equal contributor to the dynamic. Bullying consists of a bully (aggressor) and a target (victim), and can also be described as emotional abuse. Targets of bullies are subject to repeated and deliberate mistreatment, most of which is subtle and intended to damage the target’s reputation, credibility and influence. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, in 90 percent of cases, the target is driven out of the organization — 29 percent leave voluntarily, and 62 percent are fired. Often, these employees are among the company’s highest performers. They’re conscientious, perceptive, hardworking, and emotionally intelligent.
That loss of top talent can result in steep financial costs related to turnover and even litigation if the target pursues legal action. For some companies, bullying has cost millions of dollars. Other costs can’t be so easily quantified but are nonetheless real: decreased morale, decreased productivity, broken trust, damaged reputation, and lowered engagement, to name a few.
To protect your employees and your business, employers have a fiscal and moral imperative to effectively address workplace bullying. But first they need to know how to spot it in the midst of other common conflicts.
Spot These Bullying Behaviors
Common bullying behaviors include, but are not limited, to:
- Intimidation: Through the threat of pain (physical or emotional), targets come to learn that saying no to the bully is unacceptable. For example, the bully might embarrass the target publicly for contradicting him or her, or send the target an insult-laced email for expressing an alternate viewpoint.
- Unwarranted criticism: Criticism is a normal part of the workplace, but ideally, it’s delivered kindly and for the sole purpose of improving performance. Bullies, on the other hand, have no interest in being kind or improving performance. They aim to humiliate and frustrate so they can manipulate the target through negative emotions.
- Withholding resources: Employees need tools, guidance, and support to do a job right. Bullies make sure they don’t get any of that. They’ll withhold critical information, access to key people and resources, all in an attempt to facilitate the target’s failure and public disgrace.
- Reputation smearing: Bullies use gossip and other forms of unethical communication to spread lies and half-truths about targets’ work habits, work product, and personal character.
- Shunning: Refusing to acknowledge someone’s presence is a petty yet powerful tool of a bully. Like every weapon in the bully’s arsenal, shunning is a form of emotional abuse designed to make the target feel invisible and unwanted. Deliberately refusing to greet someone in plain sight is an example of shunning.
- Misuse/abuse of power: Executive bullies abuse their power, for example, when they state falsehoods and dare subordinates to challenge them, or when they place subordinates in the uncomfortable position of violating their ethics or risk losing their favor.
The core theme running through all of these behaviors is control achieved through aggression, whether it is overt or passive. In many cases, the bully is in a position of power (e.g., a manager) — which makes these behaviors even more destructive, since the employee assumes that little can be done to combat the bully’s actions. A bully may even be someone in a perceived position of power. For example, the bully may not actually be a manager, but may be close personal friends with a manager. Because of that, the victim often feels like there’s little he or she can do to address the situation. Ultimately, that power — real or perceived — creates an unbalanced dynamic that allows bullying behaviors to thrive.
When faced with these types of conflicts, employers must ask themselves, “Is the level of aggression displayed fitting for the circumstances?” If the answer is clearly no, there’s probably a bully on the premises, and action is required.
How to Stop Bullying in Your Organization
Bullying can and should be stopped. However, research shows that 72 percent of employers will instead encourage, defend, rationalize, deny, or discount bullying acts. Your employees deserve better. Here are our top three tips for ridding your organization of bullying behavior:
- Resolve to create a respectful workplace. It’s easy to say your organization won’t stand for bullying, but achieving a respectful workplace takes more than lip service — it requires true resolve. Resolve takes discipline, consistency, moral clarity, and the courage to put the pursuit of human dignity above all other values. It’s tough, and there will be challenges, but it’s at the heart of developing a healthy company culture.
- Commit to education. Many leaders simply don’t understand the inappropriately aggressive nature of workplace bullying. Therefore, education is key. Call in experts, follow those on the forefront of the movement to stop workplace violence, and train employees (especially managers and HR) about the tactics of workplace bullies and the signs and symptoms of improper aggression.
- Develop a ruthless intolerance for destructive workplace behavior. A zero-tolerance policy may sound exhausting, but nothing else will solve the problem. Bullying acts must be challenged. Refusing to address questionable behavior from that popular employee or that great performer will only weaken your message and convince staff that company values are only adhered to when convenient.
Business leaders have the resources to stop bullying, but first they must open their eyes to it. By standing up against workplace bullying, you can empower employees, increase engagement, and improve productivity. To learn more about creating a healthy, supportive environment for your employees, contact us.