Workplace bullying: we know how to deal with it, right? Part 1 of 2

Dr Mike Talbot Articles, Uncategorised

Part 1. A closer look at why it happens

Dr. Mike Talbot lifts the lid on some of the more difficult aspects of workplace bullying. In this, the first part of a two-part article, Mike asks what is really going on with the more difficult and intractable bullying cases?

Ever wondered what’s really going on?

Well, we do already know quite a few things about workplace bullying. Here are three:

  1. We know that people still get bullied at work. Research from employment law firm Slater and Gordon shows that almost six in 10 people have witnessed or been victims of bullying in UK workplaces; in the US, research from Dr. Judy Blando of the University of Phoenix assessed the figure to be 75% of the employees surveyed: either as a target or a witness.
  2. We know that it’s hard to speak out about bullying: the Slater & Gordon research suggested that 20 per cent of respondents feared becoming the target of the bully themselves, while brand new research in the US shows that 29% of targets remain silent about their experience of bullying.
  3. We know that there are some basic things that we should definitely do as employers:
    • acknowledge the problem and recognise that bullying goes on (while remaining wary of the casual use of the term ‘bullying’ being applied to everyday disciplinary processes, workplace conflict, or performance management)
    • train managers and others to deal positively with conflict and alleged bullying as they happen. Build a conflict-positive culture, such as described by Dean Tjosvold
    • continually support managers and others to use collaborative, solution-focussed approaches to interpersonal conflict, including workplace mediation skills
    • tackle alleged bullying incidents early on with mediation and conflict coaching, and build these remedies into a conflict resolution procedure based on collaboration rather than blame
    • take reports of bullying seriously, investigating incidents and exercising a duty of care to anyone who might have become a target of another’s improper actions
    • foster a culture of zero tolerance to bullying, led from the top down, and ensure that that people feel safe to speak up about incidents

What we seem to know rather less about is exactly why bullying still happens, and what we can do with the more difficult cases: the ones that these basic measures don’t seem to be able to stop.

The more difficult cases: do the labels help?

In my own experience of working closely with a whole range of organisations, the more difficult cases tend to be firstly those in which a person regularly uses humiliation, shaming, and scapegoating to diminish someone else’s confidence and self-esteem, and secondly, where that person shows little insight, empathy, or inclination to take responsibility for his/her actions.

Many posts on Linkedin and elsewhere will tell you that such a person is a High Conflict Personality (HCP), or borderline, or a psychopath or a narcissist. As someone with a professional background in psychotherapy, I have seen these terms bandied around and unfortunately (and often inaccurately) applied to people as if the labelling was the end of the story: ‘they bully because they are an X, Y or Z’. Full stop.

Most of the labels in common use come from the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, from the American Psychiatric Association (luckily abbreviated to DSM-5), and terms like narcissist, borderline, antisocial, etc. are from a cluster of diagnoses in that manual called ‘dramatic, emotional, or erratic’. (HCP is not actually a diagnosis, by the way.)

OK, so we know what to call people who behave in the ways that we are looking at, but personally I do shudder at what I see as the over-use of these terms:

  • often they are inaccurate. Psychiatrists that I have worked with would tell you that a diagnosis never quite fits the person. It’s just that the person is more of an X than a Y
  • people change. Someone’s behaviour is greatly affected by the environment they are in, the people who are around them, and the pressures they are under
  • just labelling someone or something doesn’t fix them or it. We need to understand people’s fundamental needs and drivers if we want to bring about meaningful change

What might be more helpful is to combine these diagnostic ideas with the question of whether the person has insight into their behaviours and motivations, or whether they lack such insight. Then we can consider much more pragmatically how to manage different situations and people where bullying is alleged.

People’s history coming into the present. How come?

So, back to the labels for a moment. Anyone who would be considered to have a disorder within the definitions in the ‘dramatic, emotional, or erratic’ cluster of DSM-5 has more than likely suffered some level of abuse or neglect in childhood. This would involve insecure attachment to parents or carers, or a level of invalidation, abandonment, or other reason that has led to a lack of trust in people. And although we obviously aren’t doing therapy with people, if we know that this might have been someone’s past, formative experience, we can get a better insight into their present needs and motivations.

I tend to work with the assumption, not wholly mine: it comes from gestalt theory, that people (which includes you and me, by the way) have a compelling need to let other people know just how we feel: a need to let others know what it is like to be us. We do this assertively and with awareness when we relate to others in a genuine way, often simply telling people how we feel. But with the more difficult or archaic feelings that we carry around, we can tend to do this out of awareness, and sometimes in damaging ways.

With individuals of the ‘dramatic, emotional, or erratic’ personality types, the early traumatic experiences are usually buried deep. And such a person will be quite unaware of some of the motivations behind their behaviours. Those motivations are likely to be, firstly, their need to avoid re-experiencing those difficult feelings, and secondly, their urge to let other people know just how their early trauma has affected them.

The sorts of feelings that can come from a history of early neglect, abuse or abandonment are a sense of shame and humiliation: of being belittled and ignored or abandoned. So, when the ‘dramatic, emotional, or erratic’ personality shows bullying behaviour, I would argue that they are doing so partly to pass those feelings on, and partly to avoid re-experiencing those feelings themselves.

  • They humiliate, shame and depersonalise others partly because they have felt, or still feel, humiliated, shamed, and depersonalised themselves
  • They scapegoat and blame others for mistakes and failings so that they can avoid the shame of being found out or exposed as being inadequate or not up to the mark
  • They belittle others and show a lack of empathy as a form of revenge for being made to feel belittled and uncared-for themselves

Yet this just tells us where the bullying behaviours are coming from. This indeed has some value, but the next issue is to consider whether the person has insight and therefore has the possibility to change what they do.

Is change possible? Yes and no

Clearly, some individuals have little or no insight and are highly defensive about their conduct, often victim-blaming, minimising and justifying their behaviour, and using attack as a form of defence against being scrutinised. Here, if the person shows signs that they cannot change, all parts of the organisation have to work together to gather information, investigate, make a judgement about whether the person’s behaviour crosses the line, and use progressive disciplinary steps to address the improper conduct. Ultimately, that person might be leaving the organisation.

However, other individuals may have just a little insight. They are receptive to feedback, they do not entirely dismiss people who tell them that their behaviours are hurtful or counter-productive, and they want to avoid the negative sanctions that they know would result if their behaviour were not to change.

So, how do we work with such individuals to bring out the best in them, to foster more comfortable and productive relationships with those around them at work, and ultimately to bring about more positive and restrained behaviours?

And that forms the topic of the second part of this article.

PS. I’m presenting a free webinar on the subject of workplace bullying and harassment. It’s at 12pm on 7th July and I’ll be expanding upon some of these themes more. There’s limited availability for the webinar, so make sure you book your place today. Hope to see you there.