Why We Have Bullying in Our Organisations

There is a lot of commentary in the media and articles on line that talk about bullying, villainising the bully and sympathising with the bully’s victim (the last part I totally understand) but I have yet to read anywhere about why the person being called the bully behaves the way they do.  It seems that this is where leaders wash their hands of any responsibility with comments like “they’ve always been like that!” or “They’re the boss, that’s just what bosses do!” and “We can’t afford to lose their expertise, lets put them into a different department, I’m sure they’ll work better there”.   This is why we have bullying in our organisations, we don’t deal with the cause of bullying, instead we at best put a sticky plaster on it and hope the behaviour will correct itself.

Before I talk about how bullying occurs I want to be clear around what I mean by bullying.  Bullying is the persistent misuse of power.  It is ongoing offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour that makes the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable.  The point I want to make here is that the bullying behaviour needs to be persistent, which means it happens over time and in my mind this is where we have our focus completely wrong in dealing with bullying, let me explain.

The Happy Bully

If you have ever been the victim to bullying behaviour, ask yourself this “Was the bully a happy person?”  In all the work I have done in organisations and all the experiences I have had first hand, the bully is never happy.  This makes sense because bullying behaviour comes from a place of stress not happiness.  The last time you were frustrated or angry with someone, how did the conversation go, was it all smiles and calm conversations, I doubt it, its likely that the conversation was tense (at best), there would have been no smiling, indeed it’s likely your face would have shown your frustration and likely your tone of voice would have done the same.  This is nature, we can’t help it, our brain in this state is being ruled by our amygdala (the primitive part of the brain) whose main role is to ensure our survival, it is where our fight or flight responses stem from.  When we are faced with behaviour or an environment we feel is threatening we instantly go to this flight or fight response and for us to be able to fight we need aggression and lots of energy so we can survive the encounter, it is this side of us that comes out when we are under continual stress.

We are not at our most pleasant in this state and it is in this persistent state (known as chronic stress) that our behaviour can change to one that could appear bullying to others around us.  This is why bullies are never happy, they themselves are feeling under threat, they are acting out the only way they know how to survive the hostile environment or people around them.  The bully is as much a victim as the victim of the bully, it is this that most leaders do not understand.

Removing Bullying from an Organisation

Leaders must understand that they should not be focused on removing the bully from the organisation, instead they need to remove the stressors that lead to bullying behaviour within their organisation.

  1.  Know your people and what they are like when they are positive and happy.  When leaders understand the people around them, know what makes them tick and what keeps them happy it is easier for them to notice changes in them.  The key to removing bullying from any organisation is to notice when people start to behave differently, more defensive in their approach to things, maybe quieter in conversations and becoming more moody.  When leaders know what positive looks like for each member of their team, it becomes easy to pick up when they are moving into the flight or fight mode.
  2. Talk about their stressors not their behaviour or performance.  If you want to get to the bottom of what is really happening, have a conversation with someone about where they are at, how they are feeling, find out what is stressing them and ask what can I do to help you through this?  When a leader has a conversation about helping someone remove whatever it is that is causing them stress, that person will open up say what the problems really are.  If a leader approaches the same scenario focused on the persons negative behaviour, it is far more likely the person will shut down (flight) or lash out defensively (fight), either way making it really difficult to get to the real problem.
  3. Commit to dealing with the problem is a must once it has been discovered.  The leader must put a plan in place, preferably with the collaboration of the person in question and then they must be seen to making those changes happen.  When a leader demonstrates this, the trust between them and the person concerned increases considerably, further strengthening their relationship.  Dealing to the underlying problem also ensures it doesn’t put anyone else into that negative stressed state and will remove the opportunity for negative or bullying behaviour to grow within the organisation.

I have made it all look very simple in this article to deal with bullying behaviour, it is anything but simple.  As said before, this behaviour is developed over long periods of time, often on the back of deep rooted systemic or cultural problems.  When leaders become brave enough to rectify these things, it can takes months or even years especially if the cause of the problem is the senior leaders themselves.  Of course the same rules apply at the top of an organisation, what is it that is causing those leaders the stress?  Once they confront that and deal with it, they can drive change from the top and over time remove the scenarios that could lead to negative behaviour and bullying from ever taking hold.