I’m on the horns of a dilemma – a most uncomfortable position to be in, let me tell you. I want to highlight something which exists in the dark side of organisational life. It’s hard to see any positives about this at all. It’s a topic readily identified in the workplace, is rarely talked about yet is a considerable force. I’m talking about workplace bullying and its pernicious permutations.

Bullying is about abusing power (albeit legitimate or illegitimate power) by virtue of position or power base and can present itself in many ways. It may be very obvious in some instances and yet be more subtle and elegant in its manifestation in others. Using the following as a guide, what can you spot in your workplace?

Invaders – These protagonists invade peoples’ personal spaces, shout and yell, table thump, stomp around, throw files, slam doors and storm the corridors in an altogether ‘in your face and up your nose’ sort of way. Ever watchful, they simmer continuously until an incident triggers the Erupt button………then, after a time, the button resets itself onto simmer. The invaders aim to show they are in control of things. They want to intimidate.

Stonewallers – These individuals relentlessly challenge and question every comment and request. They stall, go-slow or attempt to block implementation of initiatives or everyday instructions. They major in minors and regardless of the size of the issue or its importance in the scheme of things, they challenge, question and nit-pick. Endlessly. Using these tactics, the stonewallers aim to wear people down. It’s a serious game, this, and the stonewallers aim to win it, regardless of how long it takes.

Pouncers – These individuals glide stealthily along the corridors and then pounce, without warning, on the Unsuspecting. They hit their targets with speed and fury. They may demand work be stopped immediately, in order to attend to something else, or they may demand answers to something previously discussed and long forgotten. Pouncers want to keep people on their toes, all of the time, so they’re stressed and tense waiting for the next hit……..whenever it may be.

Manipulators – These protagonists take concepts and various elements from a range of legitimate fields and use that knowledge to play psychological mind games on others. They aim to know everything there is to know about a person’s personal life and emotional state. They like to delve into the recesses of a person’s mind, so they can get a handle on them. They can take everyday comments, issues or situations and twist them beyond recognition, attributing perspectives or meanings to them that bear no relation to the issue. A recipient’s attempts to correct perceptions or situations only fuels the manipulator further and gives him/her more material to work with. Their focus can be very personal, very bizarre and very difficult to follow – if you’re not a fellow manipulator, that is. Manipulators see nothing wrong in their behaviour or approach – they can justify their actions as being good for the organisation, because its important to really ‘know’ the workforce and second guess what they’re going to do, before they do it.

Elegant Practitioners – These individuals appear helpful, cooperative, gracious, team and individual players – on the surface. They operate a ‘you can trust me, I’ll see you right’ persona yet their intent and actions are altogether different. They may set people up, by deliberately withholding information or intentionally feeding out misinformation. They can freeze people out of groups; they can allege inadequacies or complaints about peoples’ performance; they can gang up on minorities or anyone who is different, in some way. All of this happens behind the scenes, yet unsuspecting recipients will know none of this activity and see only what’s on the surface. Elegant Practitioners, because of their slickness and skill, can disguise their actions which makes it almost impossible for a recipient or other workmates to put their finger on what may be happening. Elegant Practitioners want to be seen in a good light and have control over the status quo, without appearing to be controlling.

So what can you do? Being aware of bullying and its many manifestations is a good beginning point. Determine how ‘bullyproof’ your workplace is. What is the potential for retaliation or backlash for people who speak out about various issues or concerns? Have you ever heard individuals’ speak of repercussions? Have you ever heard of individuals’ reluctance to step forward because of a past experience? How confidential is ‘confidential’? Have you ever heard things that weren’t meant for your ears? Know where did the leaks came from? How ‘anonoymous’ are your 360 performance appraisal anonymous feedback mechanisms? Have you ever heard individuals’ say they had seen the anonymous written feedback yet they can easily identify the people who made particular comments?

Develop a policy on workplace behaviours that will not be tolerated – and really spell them out – so there can be no confusion. Ensure your organisation has a formal and informal complaints system. Take complaints seriously and investigate them. Assist recipients to develop a range of strategies to deal with bullys and their behaviours. Encourage documentation of incidents. Support the recipients and consider referring to specialist support if they are seriously traumatised by their experiences. Confront bullys with their behaviour and document incidences and meetings.

There are no easy answers nor easy solutions to this dilemma. Bringing the issue out into the open is one way forward – the rest should follow.

First published in NZ Business Magazine Sept 2000

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