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Workplace bullying: How to deal with its complexity

Workplace bullying often arises within the workplace due to a complex interplay of factors, namely power dynamics, identity, anxiety, and bias. It is important to be able to recognize the signs of workplace bullying so that you can take action to protect yourself, such as setting clear boundaries with the bully, confronting the bully (if you have the confidence to do so), keep a record of bullying behavour.

This month is National Bullying Prevention Month and workplace bullying has continued to remain firmly in the spotlight, following several high profile stories coming out of Westminster and large organisations. Former cabinet minister Sir Gavin Williamson was ordered to apologise after an inquiry found he had bullied a colleague in texts. And senior civil servants at the Ministry of Justice were offered the opportunity to switch roles to avoid working with Dominic Raab when Rishi Sunak reappointed him as justice secretary last year. Then this summer McDonald’s made an apology to UK staff due to allegations of harassment and a toxic work culture in its restaurants.

As a systemic and relationship psychotherapist, I work closely with teams and organisations and often find individuals within these settings who grapple with issues related to bullying or challenging interpersonal dynamics with their colleagues or managers. Bullying can be acutely undermining in its hostile nature. It can lead to individuals doubting themselves and their skills, and worse start to believe that they are the issue. 

The National Centre Against Bullying defines bullying as ‘an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm’. It is never okay.

Through my extensive experience, I have observed that these situations often arise within the workplace due to a complex interplay of factors, namely power dynamics, identity, anxiety, and bias. I will delve into factors more deeply below:

  1. Power Dynamics: In virtually every human interaction, a power dynamic is at play. Those in positions of authority or influence can wield their power to either guide, control, or empower others. However, it’s common for individuals in the workplace to overlook the impact of their influence on their colleagues. For instance, a manager might casually share a joke about team members, believing it to be harmless, while a colleague might perceive it as embarrassing, shaming, or akin to being singled out. Due to the power differential, the colleague may avoid challenging such behaviour out of fear. This lack of awareness regarding the use of power and privilege is a recurring issue in many organisations.
  2. Identity: People have unique self-perceptions and narratives about themselves and others. Workplace bullies often do not self-identify as such; instead, they might frame their actions as harmless fun, character-building or dismiss their targets as overly sensitive. This disconnect between how the bully perceives themselves and how the victim experiences their behaviour contributes to the issue’s complexity.
  3. Anxiety: Work environments can be anxiety-inducing, particularly when deadlines loom and performance is scrutinized. Under such pressure, interactions between colleagues can become critical, blame-oriented, and hostile. This hostile environment can create fertile ground for the emergence of unpleasant workplace behaviours.
  4. Bias: Conscious and unconscious biases about colleagues can also play a pivotal role in shaping workplace interactions. Biases can lead individuals to treat others differently based on preconceived notions, perpetuating harmful dynamics.

It can be hard to speak up about bullying, but it is essential. Not only is it vital that the victim speaks up but also anyone who is a witness to this behaviour. If you are being bullied at work, there are strategies that you can use to cope. Being proactive may help you feel better.

  • If you are experiencing workplace harassment, discrimination, or bullying, seeking support and taking action to protect yourself is important. Talking to a trusted friend or colleague can be a helpful way to process your feelings and emotions. Additionally, if your organisation has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), consider contacting for counselling and guidance.
  • Setting clear boundaries with individuals who are causing distress is also important. Politely but assertively communicate what behaviour is unacceptable to you while maintaining professionalism. Tell the bully what they have done and that it is unacceptable. Let them know that their behavior will not be tolerated and that if it occurs again, you will take action. Setting boundaries lets others know what type of behavior you are willing to accept. 
  • Keep a record of any incidents so that you build evidence. It allows you to express your feelings and may be cathartic to do so. It also builds evidence that can be used in a tribunal (depending on whether you choose to pursue that route).
  • Find out what your organisation’s policy on bullying is and how complaints are handled. This ensures that you’re equipped to know your next steps if the problem persists.
  • If the situation does persist, consider addressing the issue directly with the bully involved, using “I” statements to express your feelings and concerns. If you choose to do this, make sure you have enough support in place, be firm rather than aggressive and stick to the facts. Be clear about what you don’t like and what you want to change, 
  • If the situation still cannot be resolved, it may be necessary to talk to HR or a higher-level manager. Present your documented evidence and express your desire for a resolution. It is also important to familiarise yourself with your organisation’s policies on harassment, discrimination, and bullying and your legal rights related to workplace issues. Consult legal counsel if necessary. Remember, you deserve to work in a safe and respectful environment.
  • Psychotherapy can be a good place to speak about your experience. Having your experiences heard and validated can help you onto a path of healing and enable you to find confidence to take action. It can also help you to identify any behavioural patterns that might increase your vulnerability to bullying so that you feel equipped to recognise warning signs and can protect yourself better.

Workplace bullying can be openly hostile or it can be more subtle. Whatever form it takes it can take a deep toll on employee well-being and productivity. It is important to be able to recognize the signs of workplace bullying so that you can take action to protect yourself. 

If you or someone else is struggling with bullying, you can find support here:

The Samaritans 24 hour helpline, call: 116 123

For resources and advice visit: Mental Health at Work, the ACAS website or the Anti-Bullying Alliance website and the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

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