We can all be bullies (we just don't see it...)

Richard Thompson




It is anti-bullying week and therefore a good moment to reflect on what we can do more (or less of) to promote a work environment that is free from bullying. I don't need to supine on the benefits of a workplace where everyone feels comfortable and accepted for who they are - there's a mountain of research that supports the idea that a positive work environment is good for business.

In this blog I want to focus on a very simple idea - we can all be bullies and most of the time we just don't realise we're doing it. Even if we might sense that our behaviour is less than angelic, we don't like to see ourselves as the bully. That's because the word 'bully' is very powerful - there is a lot of stigma attached to it. Say the word out loud and we typically think of someone we might once have been bullied by - the playground bully, or an unpleasant colleague - the word will always have negative connotations attached to it as well as a host of negative attributes and characteristics we apply to the person we perceive to be the bully. 

So it's natural that we don't want to be seen as, or think of ourselves as the bully. But we have to accept that sometimes we just are, often without meaning to be. Most of the time in workplaces problems that amount to bullying are subtle and nuanced - the overtly problematic behaviours are less frequent. Often, we say things and do things impulsively (we are human after all!) that can have a much more negative impact than we realise (being slightly short-fused when giving feedback, teasing someone at the wrong moment, making a flippant remark about their appearance etc.). Sometimes it is even more subtle and it can be our failure to say or do something that creates the negative impact (not inviting that person to lunch, not allocating a particular piece of work etc.) - however our intention is rarely to go out of our way to bully someone. Sadly that's not to say that on occasion there are cases where people intentionally bully others, but it is our unintentional impact that we typically don't think enough about. But if there is negative impact, there is a potential problem that over time can lead to wider concerns if unaddressed.

The simple answer is that we need to forget about our intentions (it doesn't matter how well intended something is - if it lands badly there is an issue). We need step outside of our own perspective and apply a different lens by focusing on impact, about how something has landed with the people around you - this is a much better litmus test as to whether a certain behaviour could be seen as problematic and can give  you the drive to do something about it. It's not easy to do but to achieve the best possible work environment we all need apply a different perspective in order to be more self-aware and reflective of our own behaviour - so slow your thinking down, challenge yourself and focus on your impact. There are lots of other things we can all be doing of course to challenge bullying at work, but starting with our own actions can be very powerful (and dare I say it...impactful!).