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Workplace bullying – Why me?

“Why me?” I’m often asked when I’m coaching someone around how to handle someone they think is bullying them. I come across people who are often competent performers, who have been worn down, are tearful, anxious and unable to cope with seemingly simple tasks.

My first task is to understand what is going on for the person, is the ‘bully’ like this with everyone or are they being specifically targeted? If it transpires that the person is like that with everybody then it’s a behavioural style (which is not ok!) and not targeted bullying. If it’s a behavioural style then that still needs to be addressed with the person. In the case of targeted bullying when I suggest that it’s likely that they are being targeted because of envy on the part of the bully I see the target start to reclaim their internal ‘mojo’ (as I call it). Then we move into what they can do, to change tack and sort the problem.

Workplace bullies are about control and domination. It’s psychological warfare, pure and simple. They seek their targets carefully. It’s not impulsive or accidental. They scan the environment to identify the target they can control. Often the target is known as competent with a good work history, they are committed to their work, get on well with people, likely to be a team player with a cooperative approach, a strong sense of integrity and fairness, they may be quick to apologise. To the bully the target is a threat. They threaten the status of the bully or may show up the bully’s own inadequacies, or they’re known for picking on the weaker, submissive people. They like the control, and the power.

They befriend to get information about the target. Their values, beliefs, hopes, fears and weak spots. With newbies the bully may even put themselves forward as a workplace buddy. They want to find out about the ‘opposition’ and how they can use that information for their own purposes.

Then starts the pattern of undermining. Small, seemingly trivial incidents, under the radar stuff. False allegations, withholding of information, forgetting to invite the target to a meeting or social gathering. Then they move into the ‘over the radar’ stuff. Openly dressing down the target in front of workmates. The bully may use hot and cold treatment, friendly one moment, distant and aloof the next. It’s all designed to unseat the target psychologically. The target will not initially recognise that they are being targeted and may make excuses for what’s going on. Around them the rest of the team knows whats going on. They’ve seen it before.

The bully uses the information they have about the target, the stuff they got early on in their relationship. A whispering campaign may start and the target becomes isolated.

Then what the bully wants to achieve starts to happen. The targets’ performance declines, they become isolated with little support.

Result? The target fails. They either resign or succumb to the power domination.

Workplace bullies are calculating predators. They think through carefully their plan of attack. What makes it worse for the target is that the bully often has strong upward or lateral networks that protect them.

Who don’t bullies take on?  Psychologically strong, assertive types who stand up to the bully; people who have their own power and authority base, and …. other bullies.

In a psychologically unsafe workplace, where it’s not safe to speak up, the bully is left unchecked, and they grow in their sense of power.  We have to circuit break the culture from the top.  Check out a post I wrote on how to shift the status quo of bullying.

In a later post, I’m going to flag up the types of workplace bullying behaviours to look out for. Click here for a handout.

Does gender have a bearing on workplace bullying? Click here for a factsheet on Bullying and Gender.

If bullying is going on in your organisation and you need professional support with how to address it then contact me.

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“Work Shouldn’t Hurt” – but recent studies reveal a staggering 90% of people experience workplace bullying across NZ

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