When we encounter whistleblowing, bullying and harassment, we are confronted by the need to discuss the thorny issue of the “truth” and our perception of it. The investigation of and search for an objective truth is often driven by a need to establish right and wrong. This is followed, in some form or other, by the identification of a perpetrator and a victim, of a “crime” and punishment. This can cause us to be very cautious with our words and the truths we affiliate ourselves with. It can also cause us to oversimplify the issues, avoid the grey areas and curtail discussions that are difficult. This leads to a breakdown of trust and, with that, an unwillingness to be truthful for fear of unfair incrimination.
In an age where mental ill health is acknowledged and supposedly supported, our conversations need to become more challenging and our solutions more sophisticated. Being in a situation where we feel we need to “blow the whistle” or expose bullying or harassment can be extremely challenging. We might fear the situation being turned on us, that we will be labelled as a trouble-maker or as creating a “drama”. However, being accused of being the perpetrator in these situations, even if we are responsible can be equally devastating. This is true particularly if these behaviours, are driven by our own fears, anxieties or indeed mental ill health which we are sometimes not even aware of ourselves.
To navigate these challenges, we firstly need to accept 3 uncomfortable truths. Only then can we develop strategies to allocate responsibility and, more importantly, ensure that individuals on all sides can recover from the situation and, in so doing, remedy it.
Uncomfortable truth No1: Accept the unacceptable
There is no doubt that certain actions and behaviours are unacceptable and have consequences for which the perpetrator(s) need to be held responsible. But, the remedy does not end at allocation of responsibility by a third party. For the remedy to be effective, it will require lasting change. This change will often involve numerous parties directly and indirectly involved and often the organisation itself.
This means that we need to accept all complexities of the situation and acknowledge the part that various people, beyond the main protagonists have played in it. This is an uncomfortable thing to do because it creates fears of recrimination as a result of an over exaggerated allocation of responsibility. We feel that accepting some responsibility opens us up to risk of being blamed or set up as a scapegoat.
Clearly, this needs to be navigated carefully. It is crucial to understand that accepting some responsibility for contributing to a situation and making mistakes does not always require a punishment. But, it is crucial to engendering changed behaviour and being able to let go of the past. As much as that behaviour may be part of our history, it does not need to define us. By accepting what has happened in its entirety, however unacceptable, we can then move forward from it.
Uncomfortable truth No2: Forgive the unforgivable
This idea creates an actual or at least perceived paradox. We can feel that if we forgive, we are creating an opportunity for the same crimes or misdemeanours to be repeated. The challenge is that in the areas of Whistleblowing, bullying and harassment, many of those involved can feel like they are a victim to the situation including the alleged perpetrator.
Forgiveness is often less about the perpetrator and more about the victim. Many people find it hard to move on from the situation even when responsibility has been allocated. We still find that negative feelings and thoughts are activated within us when we think about the other person and what happened. The result is that we continue to be affected by the situation long before it is past. When this happens, the only permanent solution is that of forgiveness in order that we can let the situation go. This forgiveness will include:
>Forgiving ourselves for being in the situation in the first place: often the situation wasn’t our fault but we blame ourselves for being in it or becoming victim to it.
> Forgiving the other person. When we do this, we must understand that we do it more for the benefit of us as victim than for the benefit of the person we feel wronged by. The aim of forgiving someone else is to feel free of the situation. Sometimes we can do this by finding some empathy with them, by identifying with some of their negative behaviours as something that we can do albeit in a possibly less damaging way. Sometimes, when the thoughts of anger and resentment come to mind, we just have to replace them with thoughts of forgiveness and “fake it until we make it”. We don’t have to tell the person we have forgiven them, we just need to come to a place of forgiveness in order to guarantee our own peace of mind.
Uncomfortable Truth No3: Take a “big picture” view
Clearly bullying and harassment is not something anyone should have to experience, let alone tolerate over time. It is an extremely unhealthy pattern of behaviour. But to simply class the perpetrator as “wrong” or “bad” can be counter-productive because it can drive underground the more challenging issues that sit beneath that behaviour. For example, it is possible, even likely that the bully is someone who has been subject to bullying themselves. If this is the case the bully being bullied often happened long before they entered the workplace, it may even stem from childhood. Where we get to very quickly is that the bully may have mental ill health and may themselves need support. It may also take the individual a long time to reach the conclusion that they need that support.
At this point, the response becomes tricky. The response to mental ill health is not to tell the person exhibiting symptoms that they are wrong and must be punished. It is rather to offer them support and give them an opportunity to take responsibility for their actions. This acknowledgement must not negate the rights of the individual who has been bullied to receive justice. Rather, it offers the opportunity to deliver a more sustainable form of justice by dealing with the root cause as opposed to the effect.
Taking back control
The uncomfortable truths outlined above can feel confusing. When we are in situations of bullying, harassment and whistleblowing feeling clear about next steps our personal safety is paramount. This can be hard at the same time as negotiating the grey areas. However, the actions set out below can support the process.
Prepare a strategy
It is helpful to take time when difficult situations come up, to be clear and honest with ourselves on what is most important to us. These priorities may change over time and it is important to be clear on our priorities as well as being prepared to change our minds. Otherwise, we can sometimes stick to principles that are counter productive for us.
Helpful questions can be:
>What are your top and bottom lines
>What do you want to gain
>Will your actions achieve your desired results
>What might you lose
Set healthy boundaries
How we are treated and how people engage with us affects us day to day on a visceral level. It can affect our self esteem and our ability to engage with others. It can help to:
>write down what behaviour towards us is and is not acceptable
>identified incidents where we have allowed that behaviour to happen because it has served other priorities (to be liked, to get the job done etc..) and, in light of that, to review which boundaries are fixed and which are more moveable
>write down behaviours we have demonstrated with others that we are not proud of
>write down a list of how we do and do not want to behave with others
Seek the help of professionals
HR and legal professionals are key to navigating complicated situations and helping us to find an objective “justice” and a potential routemap to achieving that
Coaches, psychotherapists, trainers and mindfulness experts can support us to make decisions based on the facts and formal advice that we can be sure is integrity with our other life choices.
It is helpful to give a lot of thought to the professional advice that we are receiving and ensuring that it enables us to exit from situations of bullying, harassment and whistleblowing having been true to our values.
Above all, in these highly charged situations, a key to getting to the other side of the uncomfortable truths is to find a way to operate with compassion for both others and ourselves. In striving for compassion, we will find more sustainable solutions.
Louisa Weinstein – Author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution & Mediator & Trainer at The Conflict Resolution Centre