With the recent tragic news regarding the suicide of BC teen Amanda Todd, attention has been renewed on the topic of bullying both in media and in casual conversation. Bullying does seem to be more prevalent now than it has been in recent years (possibly due to the potential for 24/7 harassment over internet social platforms). Much of the focus on bullying is on teens, and generally they do partake in the more explicitly vicious forms of harassment. It strikes me, however, that adult bullying is also on the rise.
Seeing as we spend a substantial number of our waking hours at our jobs – and that many workplaces merely feel like adult-populated versions of high school – the workplace becomes prime bullying territory. I personally know many people who have been specifically targeted for workplace bullying. This bullying typically came from a manager or supervisor with a higher status than their target. While teens openly taunt, mock, harass, and attack, workplace bullies are slightly more subtle than that. In addition to a more sophisticated bullying approach, workplace bullies are often protected by their superior rank within the organization. Several of my personal acquaintances have been harassed by a workplace bully in the following ways:
- Given impossible workloads
- Given workloads far higher than those of their peers with the same jobs
- Refused any form of support from their supervisor for any of their actions
- Were openly attacked, antagonized, or otherwise demeaned by their supervisor in front of clients or service users
- Were set against a colleague by a manager who antagonized the two employees by telling each of them untrue information against the other
- Were refused vacation or sick leave to which they were entitled
- Were blamed for problems or errors caused by the bullying supervisor
- Were increasingly marginalized from their original responsibilities
- Were relentlessly micromanaged
All of the above circumstances occurred in organizations in a dysfunctional work environment. This should not come as a surprise; workplaces cannot be functional when employees are the targets for such actions. What does surprise me is that many managers and supervisors – especially those who engage in bullying – believe that their tyrannical management methods will create a dutiful, compliant, diligent workforce. The managers I witnessed first-hand engaging in this behaviour seemed mystified when employees avoided talking to them or communicating with them any more than absolutely necessary. They admonished employees for not talking to them, citing platitudes such as “my door is always open.”
These workplace bullies operate under considerable delusion. Firstly, they believe that their behaviour is acceptable. Secondly, they have absolutely no clue that they are responsible for the most fundamental and damaging type of organizational communication breakdown: erosion of trust.
Really effective communication occurs when the parties trust one another. We inherently listen to and share with people who we believe have a common interest and who we trust will act in a manner agreeable to us. Bullying erodes trust more quickly than any other action I can think of. Even habitual lying will not do as much damage as bullying if the habitual liar is generally likable. We want to think that the likable liar is telling us the truth, so we give them the benefit of the doubt. We know the bully will continue to victimize us or others, and so we instantly distrust anything they say. We know that no matter what they do or say, we cannot trust them or their motives. Add the behavioural dissonance when a bully says that their door is always open but will use anything you say against you, and you have a recipe for a closed, non-communicative organization.
When employees within an organization do not feel they can comfortably talk to their managers or with one another, dysfunction sets in. People cannot effectively work when they cannot comfortably share information. The end result is poor performance and high turnover, which is costly at best and ruinous at worst. If a manager feels that they need to rule with a strict hand and through malicious tactics, they should be prepared to have their subordinates leave them out of the loop. They should also be prepared for employees to quit after a fairly short period, and – if the bully’s own supervisors have even one iota of sense – for their own tenure at that organization to be brief.