Our Approach to Bullying Must Change!

I have buried myself in a lot of research recently on the subject of bullying, how it happens, its short term impact on people and the long term impact on health.  In all that research no-one is talking about bullying from the aspect of the bully?  In this article I want to suggest to you, the reader that, maybe, there is a better approach to bullying, one that may even break the cycle and remove bullying from an organisation (or any group for that matter) permanently.

Let me be clear right from the start, I am not condoning bullying, having been a victim of it all through my school years and then later in the workplace, I am all to aware of the impact of bullying, but today I see my bullying antagonists through a much softer and more forgiving lens.

Let me start with what many psychologists define as bullying “situations where an employee repeatedly and over a prolonged time period is exposed to harassing behaviour from one or more colleagues (including subordinates and leaders) and where the targeted person is unable to defend him /herself against the systematic mistreatment.” (Einarsen, 2005; Einarsen et al., 2011).  The key point in this definition and many others like it is bullying is not about a single episode of conflict or harassment, but rather a form of persistent abuse where the exposed person is submissive to the perpetrator.

We already know that our brain is designed for one thing, to survive, part of the brain’s survival strategy is to ensure it does nothing (consciously) to lower its status in its tribe.  Humans, being the unique species that it is, can have different levels of status in different tribes.  For example I may be the leader in my work place (high status) but at home my wife definitely holds that badge of honor, making my status at home lower.  No matter what tribe I am part of at any given time, my conscious brain will not make any decisions that intentionally lowers that status.

So this begs the question, “Does a bully, think they are a bully?”.  In my experience they don’t, why? Because nobody ever lies in bed in the morning after the alarm clock has gone off and says to themselves “Hmm it’s Wednesday today, I think I’ll go and pick on Gary today, I think I will bully him until he breaks down and leaves the company”.  Nobody thinks this way because this would be the brain making a conscious decision to lower its status in the group by potentially getting caught behaving that way to another group member.  To everyone else that would be tantamount to treason, punishable by isolation or banishment so we don’t go there.

The main problem that I see as to why this unhelpful behaviour is allowed to happen over weeks, months and in some cases years is this.

  • Defensively aggressive “stressed” behaviour –  This type of behaviour comes from a triggered “fight or flight” response, if there is a real or perceived threat around us, we will move into less happy and more aggressive behaviour, we can’t help it, our brain only has the one stress response.  Whether we are staring down the throat of an angry bear or looking at a to-do-list that we can’t get to the bottom of, our brain reacts in the same way.  If we can’t get away from that threat, we get very defensive, we will make decisions to ensure that threat is minimised as much as possible.  If those decisions to protect ourselves happen to have aggressive outcomes to others “that’s not my fault or intention, it just is what it is”.  When we are in this state we almost never realise the outcome of our behaviour on others due to our own focus to stay safe.  In my humble opinion this is why I believe nobody ever thinks they are “toxic” or “a bully” because they don’t consciously set out to be ‘that person’, they are just stuck in survival mode.

Stopping the cycle of bullying

To stop any form of bullying we must engage the person accused of bullying in a supportive manor.  We already no that they can’t be in a good place from a mental wellbeing perspective due to their aggressive behaviour, as a leader you role is to figure out what is causing the behaviour, where are the stressors coming from in this persons life?  There are two areas where those stressors can come from:

  1. Work Stressors – The easiest for leaders to work through and ultimately remove.  Having a conversation about what factors within the workplace are impeding their ability to do their job well and stop them from feeling happy whilst at work are relatively simple to have.  Most people will open up when they are talking about factors around them that is making them feel the way they do or perform at the level they are.
  2. Personal Stressors – This is a little harder for leaders to deal with as any solution is often out with their control.  This conversation is no less important, it will give the leader a deeper understanding of what the person is having to deal with that is keeping them in a state of stress and defensiveness.

Their is one other, far more complicated factor that has a definite impact on bullying behaviour that any leader must consider:

  • Personal Trauma – Trauma whether experienced as an adult or a child can have long lasting implications to the behaviour of a person years after the traumatic event occurred.  What complicates this even more is that many trauma victims wont remember their trauma (survival mechanism) and as a result wont be aware that their behaviour is unusual or inappropriate.  Even if a person’s stress levels are not high at work or at home, trauma victims  can be ‘triggered’ by their environment, by peoples mannerisms, by tone of voice, by smell, by touch, by  a certain colour or even the status of another (in my case I always acted defensively around anyone in a position of authority), the list goes on.  If this is witnessed then professional help from a medical practitioner like a psychologist is required.

The key point to me writing this article is this, a bully is as much a victim as their victims and if we are ever going to stop the bullying behaviour we have to approach each situation in a supportive rather than a judgmental manner.  When we provide any individual with the social support they need to feel psychologically safe, only good things will come of it and through that support, significant positive change will occur.  I challenge every leader to help and support a bully rather than going to great efforts to fire them!