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Ask Lawrence: When is a Workplace Bully Not a Workplace Bully?

16 Jun 12:00 By Lawrence Akers

Lawrence Akers Workplace Bully

Last week, I wrote my blog on what you should do if you feel you’re being bullied in the workplace. Given my passion for mental health awareness and the statistics that surround workplace mental health issues, I felt it was important to write something that offered some direct advice.

I also have to say that I’ve been blown away by some of the feedback that I’ve had to the piece, both directly on LinkedIn and indirectly from friends. One friend of mine had just gone through a very difficult and painful bullying situation in her workplace and, while it has since been resolved, she forwarded the piece to her HR team as she knew how important this topic is.

I do wish to share one comment that I received in one of the LinkedIn groups. I share this because I actually agree with much of what this person writes, however, it provides an interesting additional point that can only enrich this conversation more.

Dawn writes, “If you are 'feeling bullied', you should confront your colleague and say that their behaviour is offending your dignity at work. It may feel uncomfortable to say but you are being fair, you are giving the 'bully' the opportunity to change. Not all people who engage in bullying behaviour are a bully, but they may be a little insensitive to the feelings of others so this needs to be pointed out. And when you make your diary notes, make the note of this conversation. Highlight your feelings in a calm manner.”

Now, Dawn is correct in that the most mature, adult way to handle a bullying situation in the first instance is to sit down with the person who is behaving in the bullying manner and to explain to them why their behaviour is unacceptable. In a sense, you’re creating boundaries which are clearly missing for the person with the offensive behaviour and establishing them could be all that is needed to have the behaviour cease.

I’m reminded of one guy I used to work with who was quite brilliant, very intelligent, well-liked and didn’t have a negative intention in his body yet he would occasionally drop a joke that was completely inappropriate and risked upsetting people. When we would explain to him how it was unacceptable, he would often be mortified at his own behaviour and it would stop. This doesn’t make him a good or bad person - simply one who didn’t recognise how his humour may be seen as offensive to some people.

We do need to look at the other side of this coin though. Imagine for a moment that you have a manager who is overly aggressive. Imagine that they would constantly yell at you in front of others and go red in the face trying to contain their rage. Imagine that they might talk about you with other staff within earshot of you. Imagine that there was a constant complaining from them of ‘not good enough’. Have you got a picture of someone like that? Good.  Now, how do you feel about them? Do you feel like you can approach them and talk openly? Can you imagine the level of courage and confidence that would be needed to do that? Can you imagine how eroded that confidence and courage may be if the exposure to that behaviour has been long term?

Of course, you’re not going to talk to them.

And quite honestly, why is a ‘bully’ get labelled a ‘bully’? Because they’re displaying ongoing bullying behaviour. If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck…

They might not recognise it themselves. They might tell you to suck it up, or to attempt to rationalise their behaviour by blaming it on their level of stress, or even go for some philosophical approach about listening to what they say instead of the way they say it, however, it doesn’t excuse the behaviour. They need to own the behaviour and realise that they’re causing damage to others and to their organisation.

If they’ve been that aggressive that somebody in the organisation - or multiple people - is so beaten down that they don’t believe they’re good enough at what they do, nor that anything matters anymore because nothing will ever change, then that is a sign that there is a bully in the midst who is making the culture purely toxic. Statistically, people who have been previously bullied are twice as likely to have suicidal ideation compared to those who have not been bullied. ( When you consider how much self-worth people place in their jobs, you can understand that an attack on their ability to perform their job can often be an attack on their very identity. Consider the stress of potentially losing the job, especially if you have a family to support or living close to the poverty line. These are all things that can truly tip people over the edge.

I do want to stress, this is not about being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. There are lots of good natured people out there who have behaviours in the workplace that are unacceptable, and this is simply down to the fact that they haven’t developed the skills to manage other people, or outcomes, or their own level of stress and anxiety. So where do they need to start? The answer is obviously themselves and, given the right nudge, many people will look at personal development to help create new coping strategies and skills in these situations.  It’s the ones that don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong and who justify it by blaming others that you need to be truly careful about.

Folks, I know this is a dark topic but one that needs to be discussed so that people can understand they’re not alone and to feel empowered with knowledge about what to do. As I showed in my previous blog, statistically, 50% of Australians will experience bullying in the workplace at some point in their careers. This is an absolutely staggering statistic. 50% of all Australians will be subjected to an environment that erodes their self-confidence and their ability to perform their job (and, potentially, subsequent jobs). Unless we continue to work with each other to ensure boundaries are established, excuses laid to rest, owning their behaviour and everyone treated with the level of respect they would expect for themselves, then we can only expect this costly and dangerous trend to continue.

Lawrence Akers

Recruitment Consultant - Creative Recruiters

m: 0421 660 395



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