The Bullies Among Us

 In every nook and cranny of the workplace – private, public and non-profit – bullies are dominating their co-workers, often with the tacit and explicit approval of management.
I feel compelled to write something about these toxic behaviors that are permeating our schools and workplaces.  Within the past two years, in nearly every public seminar my company conducts and in many private conversations with clients, the subject of bullying comes up. Employees, some in human resources, seem immobilized in dealing with the problem. Many would rather avoid dealing with it, rather than take on what they see as a thorny, messy and possibly fruitless intervention.
I’m no expert on the subject and no stranger to it either. But I’d like to use this week’s post to share some thoughts, information and resources that I’ve gathered in researching the problem.  On the personal side, I can say that having been the victim of high school bullies, the impact is painful and life-changing.
The more I read about the issue, the more I am convinced of its seriousness and far-reaching implications.  Avoiding the problem and applying weak and fragmented interventions is a recipe for escalation. Advances in neuroscience have shown that emotions are contagious. So what can management possibly expect when these toxic pockets of anger, hate, rage, shame, fear, humiliation and revenge are allowed to fester unattended?
It appears that most of the efforts to deal with the problem made by management and institutions too often focus on personalities, rather than a rigorous examination of the cultural norms that feed and enable bullying behavior to flourish.

Why the Rise in Bully Behavior?

This problem is so complicated and multi-layered that I hesitate even attempting to identify some of the factors that may contribute to the widespread statistical increase in bullying (of all types).

Not enough has been written about the dramatic changes in organizational culture that may be implicated in the increases in bullying behaviors in the workplace. The pressures from economic forces and globalization must be considered in any analysis.

Over the past twenty years there have been radical changes transforming the way business is conducted at every level. Globalization, huge demographic shifts, economic turbulence and massive technological change have created a sea change in the way work is done.  Much slower to change, however, have been organizational mindsets and understanding of the impact of these sweeping changing on human dynamics.

While organizations have recognized the importance of investing in upgrading workers’ technical skills, far less has been allocated to increasing communication competencies and interpersonal skills. As a result, the pressure on managers continues to increase while their skill base limits their abilities to coach rather than dictate and manage their own escalating stress in the process.

Writing in a comprehensive report on bully behaviors and organization change, Michael Sheehan, of Griffith University in Australia has said, “Organizations appear to have developed a culture whereby the achievement of organizational goals justifies the means. In this culture, managers may perceive that they have a mandate to use whatever techniques or behavior is deemed necessary in the deployment of their human resources.”

Sheehan makes the point that downsizing and restructuring processes have impacted managers from many directions. Squeezed from all ends, managers find they lack the external and internal resources to meet and exceed expectations.According to Sheehan, “In the struggle for efficiency and profit in turbulent market conditions, organizations do exert pressure on their managers. Organizational change, including terminations and the introduction of new technology, increases organizational demands on managers and consequently increases managerial stress These pressures tend to lower the threshold at which managers, particularly those operating at the limits of their skills competencies, might adopt bullying behaviors – even if involuntarily.”

 Inside the Bullied Brain

Bullying alters brain chemistry. Studies show that prolonged bullying can produce chemical and structural changes to the brain that can result in cognitive and emotional damage – in some cases as severe as that done in child abuse. Unfortunately, not enough research has been done in adult cases, although most researchers agree that the residual affects result in PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for most adults.
In his article, The Bullied Brain, author David Walsh reports that the level of the stress hormone cortisol is higher in bullied boys meaning that their stress reaction system is in constant overdrive. Research from McLean Hospital found that brain scans of bullying victims showed significant shrinkage in the corpus callosum — the brain tissue that connects the left and right hemispheres. This makes it difficult for victims to process what is happening around them and to respond appropriately.
Walsh points out that when the brain’s “alarm system,” the amygdala is repeatedly activated the brain is in a constant state of arousal. It’s as if the radar is finely tuned, always ready to pick up the slightest hint of a threat.  
In his excellent blog, Minding the Workplace, bullying expert, David Yamada suggests a link between bullying behavior and domestic abuse. In speculating why the bullied stay in their jobs despite their hostile and threatening environment, Yamada explains, “abused parties stay in the relationship, either hoping that things will change or otherwise feel trapped without options. The abuse continues and the target keeps enduring it, sometimes for years. On occasion they become so consumed with the bullying situation itself that their “fight or flight” instincts break down and they become embroiled in a game they can’t win.”
It’s important to also understand the high correlation between the bully’s brain and their own untreated and unresolved victimization from childhood abuse. Although not all bullies are the victims of abuse, the percentage demonstrated in studies is high. The bully cycle gets replayed over and over – and the number of victims stemming from the original violence increases until a victim breaks the chain by getting the help they need to heal and recover.

What Can We Do? 

The most important things anyone can do to help break the spiraling cycle of bullying in our culture is to learn, educate and take action.  There are a growing number of resources that can help.

  1. Understand the signs of bully behavior at work – From spreading gossip and rumors, exclusion and isolation, constant and unfounded criticism, tampering with personal belongings, intrusion of privacy, yelling and using obscenities to physically abusing or threatening abuse.
  2. If you are the object of workplace bullying – There are a number of common mistakes those who are bullied at work should avoid.  Most common is to engage in self blame. Self blame often leads to attempts to placating bullies, which rarely, if ever works. It’s also important to seek outside help and support. Recognize that this situation is likely to escalate and you are under psychological strain while you are involved in it.
  3. If you know someone who is being bullied at work – You can be a source of support and help to a bullied colleague.  Our silence is often perceived as permission that allows bullying to continue. However, it’s crucial to stay aware and cautious. Those who stand up for bullies publicly could find themselves on the firing line. This is especially true when the manager is the bully and if the organization has a history of condoning bully behaviors.
  4. If you are in a leadership position or human resources within your organization – I continue to be surprised by HR professionals who do not seem to know much about anti-bullying interventions. Get to know the roots of the ten-year history of the movement to address bullying in the workplace. Learn about the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program  Familiarize yourself with the legislative initiatives that are gaining momentum in the U.S. The Healthy Workplace Campaign details here. Since 2003, 21 states have introduced legislation and as of 5/2011 16 bills are currently active in 11 states.
  5. Because workplace bullying is often associated with weak leadership and organizational policies, it is important to understand and identify the practices and norms that may be enabling and sustaining bullying in your organization. Five key goals should guide your efforts:
  • Widespread surveys of the workplace climate with guaranteed anonymity for disclosure
  • Quick management responses to allegations of bullying with rapid investigations
  • Fully developed policies regarding bullying, discrimination and harassment which articulate mechanisms for responding to bullying, grievances and safety concerns.
  • Clear, articulated guidelines for management role modeling to prevent and intervene in suspected or actual bullying incidents.
  • Providing training and education to prevent aggression and bullying in the workplace. Counseling and support opportunities for victims and perpetrators of bullying.

If you believe, as I do, that bullying is a form of psychological violence, you will want to do what you can to eliminate it from our institutions and workplace cultures.  It is a destructive force that threatens our well-being, destroys productivity and poisons our society.
We’re wise to heed the words of Gavin de Becker, author of the Gift of Fear, The solution to violence in (America) is the acceptance of reality.”

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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