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John Amaechi OBE

Workplace bullying and 'the new normal'

12 July 2017 | by John Amaechi OBE

My organisation has been working in FTSE 100 and 250 companies for a decade now and there isn’t one workplace we have entered – regardless of the challenges we’ve been charged to address – where the spectre of workplace bullying hasn’t asserted itself into the mix.

Admittedly, it’s not always the primary factor, but workplace bullying does seem a common comorbidity for a range of other workplace dysfunctions and if I am present onsite long-enough, I know that people will raise concerns.

Interestingly, I hear from those who are witness to, or are nebulously aware of the bullying of others more than I hear from those who have, or are currently experiencing bullying.

Many of these individuals come forward out of a sense of obligation; not brought on by the cumulative impact of witnessing bullying, but rather a burgeoning sense of unease for being a long-term bystander – and the knowledge that due to a broad organisational and senior leader “acceptance” or (at the least) “over-looking” of the behaviours – they are unlikely to become allies or advocates until a significant leadership or “cultural” change occurs.

The nature of the bullying seen in workplaces now – like their bias and bigotry-related counterparts - is increasingly sophisticated.

Bullying may still follow a simple triple option of discursive violence, relational bullying and physical abuse, but it’s the perpetrators who’ve really learned from the early, undeniably well-intentioned, but often ineffective anti-bullying interventions –which were more agony aunt advice than a real support infrastructure.

They haven’t learned to stop bullying, just how to circumvent identification and sanction.

Bullies know the line and how to be in a position to always plausibly deny the intent of crossing it.  They understand that death-by-a-thousand-cuts is a far safer and more satisfactory strategy (for the bully) and a way to inflict a far more devastating impact on their victims because of the seeming innocuousness of each tiny blow. 

Practically, bullies know that if they hit their utilisation targets, deliver their metrics and/or over-perform, some or all of their behaviours may well be conflated with the “tolerable quirks of the high-performer”, and so they’ll get ‘a pass’.

Most of all, bullies know that that when they are not sanctioned – or at least noticed (by peers or leaders) – for their smaller negative behaviours, then in time, it is their mindset towards collegiality and the acceptability of bullying behaviours that will reset the tone for the organisations in which they work.

This inexorable ‘new normal’ soon makes any who oppose bullying or marginalisation the outliers and gives those who join a choice to ‘convert or leave’.  There are plenty of organisations out there with internally competitive cultures so intense that at least certain types of bullying are seen as legitimate tools of attrition – to separate the “weak” from the “strong”.

Sadly, this can be seen in every area of work, from construction sites to educational institutions, professional services to the public sector.

The recent news stories of some of the Technology industry companies exposed by whistle-blowers as misogyny and bullying-infused frat houses shouldn’t be seen as the idiosyncrasies of a specific type of company or a specific sector, but rather as a warning for all organisations to re-secure their own culture.

To combat workplace bullying, we must help establish the values, not to mention the leadership and collegiate ground-rules, for playing a full part as an employee, so that we develop a high-performance culture that explicitly targets and excludes bullies, their mindsets, and their behaviours.

I recognise that, as psychologists, there can be a temptation to rush to ‘shore up’ those who find themselves victims of bullying and in an individual sense, give them some much-needed support and understanding.  However, I am torn by the ethical implications of doing that coaching or ‘training’ to help them be more resilient and assertive in the face of an organisation that is tacitly sustaining an unequivocally bullying culture.

I am willing to stand corrected, but I haven’t seen any data that suggests a bullying culture is a key high-performance indicator?  If not, then a bullying culture is a function of ineffective policy and procedure, leadership oversight or abdication, or merely just a matter of organisational preference.

As such, I would expect the emphasis to be on identifying the perpetrators and (re-)setting the ‘collegiate contract’ – what everyone should expect in terms of non-technical support and challenge (in equal measure) from peers and their leadership as part of a demanding, authentic and ethical organisation.

In my work, I am enthused to support the victims of bullying develop resilience and assertiveness skills that would help them thrive through the inevitable conflicts and tribulations in any workplace, and will temporarily give them ‘room to breathe’ while their workplace resets.

However, without a commitment to systemic change in their organisation, aren’t we just giving an oxygen tank to a person stuck in a flooded room?

Surely, without ensuring work to drain the water is going on concurrently, eventually all those who don’t develop gills will drown… and that is a regression we shouldn’t countenance.

The BPS Professional Development Centre is running a workshop on Understanding and Treating Workplace Bullying in London on the 21st of July.

For more info please click here.


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