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The Worker Who Cried Bully

by Renee Mill, Clinical Psychologist
Originally published in In the Black, March 2006


Bullying behaviour was formally recognized as a national workplace issue in 1994. Bullying has been defined as persistent unwelcome behaviour, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit-picking, fault-finding, also exclusion, isolation, being singled out and treated differently, being shouted at, humiliated, excessive monitoring, having verbal and written warnings imposed, and much more.

There is no doubt that the awareness of the existence of bullying in the workplace, and its deleterious effects on the health and well being of employees, has been a major advancement. However, the ongoing discussion of bullying behaviour has led to the word bully losing its true definition and becoming the favourite description for all unpleasant behaviour at work.

Three factors need to be in place for a person to be labeled a bully.
  1. There is an imbalance of power. Statistics over the past nine years have shown that 90% of cases involve a manager bullying a subordinate and only 8% involve peer to peer bullying.
  2. The perpetrator is a "serial bully".
  3. The bully is deliberately targeting the victim.
Before you "cry bully" at work, ask yourself if the behaviour you are subjected to is truly bullying in terms of the above criteria. If not, then a whole landscape of possibilities opens up.

First, you are not a victim who needs external assistance to help balance the power equation. Instead, you are in a conflict situation where, as an equal, you can fight for better treatment. You may need to improve your personal power by becoming more assertive or you may need the assistance of a mediator, but changing the situation is within your scope.

True victims of bullying report that the impotence related to the power imbalance is debilitating, and waiting for outside agencies to assist can be demoralizing. While 20% of victims consider taking legal action, only 2% actually do and of that amount only half are successful.

Second, if the behaviour you are unhappy about happened only once, you are not being subjected to a cumulative stress effect. This means that your overall potential for recovery is much more positive than that of a victim of serial bullying. If the situation you experienced was a serious one, you will probably need time to bounce back. Often professional help is necessary to aid recovery. However, the problem becomes so much more manageable when it is isolated.

Victims of bullying lose their self confidence and belief in themselves. They often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. When they attempt to bounce back they are not only dealing with a horrible event, they are struggling to reinvent themselves too.

Third, when you realize that you are not a target of another person's malice, it is so much easier to put the situation into perspective. Once you realize that the bad behaviour is not about you, but reflects the poor social and emotional skills of a colleague, it becomes simpler to distance yourself from the behaviour. Of course you need to take action to protect yourself from aggressive, obnoxious or selfish behaviour and if necessary you should minimize contact. However, you will take these decisions about your future relationship with this person from a position of strength.

Let us keep the word bully out of our everyday vocabulary. Let us rather talk realistically about addressing problems such as "poor communication", "anger management", "competition", "social interaction", "conflict of interest" and "bad manners". When seen in this way, these issues start to feel more manageable and solutions are more accessible.

Bullying exists but it is not necessarily an everyday occurrence. By utilizing the above description you will observe and experience bullying behaviour on rare occasions only and you will feel safer and more comfortable at work overall.



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