Workplace Bullying - A Label of Convenience?

by Chris Young

Over the past several months, I have been reading article after article about a highly emotional and ugly workplace phenomenon called, "Workplace Bullying". 

While I am certain that bullies in the workplace do exist, I am concerned that this phenomenon is becoming a "blanket label" that is being used too freely.  I am not confident that Workplace Bullying exists at the level that many blogs and articles I have been reading may suggest.

Before I get tons of email and comments about what an insensitive curmudgeon I am, please allow me share a little background...  I am a red-headed stepchild (no joke) who was bullied as a child.  I know what it is like to avoid using the bathroom between classes.  I know what it is like to breath a sigh of relief when someone else (other than you) is body-slammed to the floor and kicked and punched during a lunch break.  I know what it is like to be very afraid on a long-term basis. I know about bullying.  I have been bullied. 

On the other hand, I have probably been labeled a "bully" myself.

Like pornography, bullying is pretty obvious when you see it.  Like all things, there are "shades of gray".  But is Workplace Bullying really so obvious?  In the most extreme forms, yes - obviously.  But milder forms of Workplace Bullying...  Is it possible that this label is being over-used?  I believe it is highly likely given my professional experience.

Key Thought...  Is it possible that Workplace Bullying is a result of some existing interpersonal differences that are less insideous than someone trying to control someone else for their own gains?

Examples of what may be causing Workplace Bullying mis-diagnosis follow... 

  • Poor Job Fit - How many managers are accused of being a Workplace Bully because they are trying to get someone to do their job who really cannot?  Is holding a low-performing team member accountable for task completion and work performance grounds for being labeled as Workplace Bullying?
  • Opposing Behavior Styles - We are all different.  Different strokes for different folks...  You have heard it before.  Some people are passive.  Some are aggressive.  We really do not get to decide which we are.  I personally believe our Behavior Style is "hard-wired" at birth.  If I am naturally direct, does that make me a Workplace Bully?  I think not. 
  • Value Differences - We are all passionate about different things.  The reason is because we value things differently.  Our value differences may be mild and they may be extreme.  Is a value conflict being mis-labeled as "Workplace Bullying"?

Could the labeling of another person as a "Workplace Bully" in fact be a form of Workplace Bullying?  Hmmmm...  I smell a book deal... 

Over the last several months, I have come across several blogs, websites, and articles that attempt to define "Workplace Bullying.  As a Behaviors and Values Analyst, I find cause for concern.  In my "line of work", I help organizations improve their Customer Service Experience as well as interpersonal effectiveness through the understanding of core Behavioral Styles and Value differences. 

What am I finding almost universally?  Our differences drive one another nuts at times.  Furthermore, if one of us is the boss, that difference comes with power and potentially little need for the boss to "flex" to meet the emotional needs of others. 

In short, we could all improve our own Emotional Intelligence in order to improve our interpersonal effectiveness.  When we increase our understanding of the fact that what makes us "tick" may often be completely opposite of others, we then can create Self and Social Awareness. 

Through enhanced Self Awareness and understanding of my own viewpoint of the world through my core Behaviors and Values, I may begin to understand how others may perceive my words and actions (Social Awareness).  When I learn to better understand my own Behaviors and Values, I can better understand others and how to best engage with them so that we may each get more of what we desire.  When I make choices to engage others by communicating with them in a manner that is least offensive to them, I am setting myself up to get more of what I really want.

Sometimes I am impatient and use the "demanding" and "more direct approach" as opposed to flexing my behaviors to "earn" respect and latitude.  After all...  Sometimes I am in a hurry!  I can imagine at times when I am quite direct that someone may think of me as a bully - but am I really being a bully or is it a Behavior or Value conflict?

People come in many different Behavior "Types" that may be an extreme or blend of the following...

  • Some are more "extroverted" while others more "introverted". 
  • Some are very "cold" emotionally or task-oriented while others are very warm and people-oriented. 

We each have unique Value combinations that loosely include the following areas:

  • Knowledge
  • Money and Efficiency
  • Form and Harmony
  • The Desire to Shape One's Own Future and That of Others
  • The Desire to Help Others
  • Structure Belief Systems

Let's face it.  Emotional Intelligence is a serious "growth opportunity" for many people.  (Especially myself at times!)

I have to wonder if Workplace Bullying is less purposeful in nature and just people being naturally who they are without conscious consideration for the feelings of others.  If that is the case, then Workplace Bullying is a poor label.  Instead - Workplace Bullying is the result of people being people without regard for one another's feelings.   

If a person is naturally oblivious to the negative emotions created by insensitive comments and actions that this is not in and of itself - Workplace Bullying per se.  These negative emotions are the result of someone else "being rude". 

In my research on Workplace Bullying, I have seen a lot of "fluff" and what I call "me too syndrome".  A lot of "experts" are making a buck on the speaking circuit spreading their "wisdom" on this subject.  Without a doubt, there is a Workplace Bullying problem out there - but I believe the experts want the problem to be larger than it is for obvious self-serving reasons.

If you are seeking objective information on Workplace Bullying, you may want to check out the Workplace Bullying Institute. They describe Workplace Bullying as:

(a) is driven by perpetrators' need to control the targeted individual(s) , (b) is initiated by bullies who choose targets, timing, place and methods, (c) escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily through coercion, and it (d) undermines legitimate business interests when bullies' personal agendas take precedence over work itself.

The bottom line...  Workplace Bullying is without a doubt a sensitive workplace issue.  I believe that through Emotional Intelligence education that progress may be made in erradicating milder forms of "Workplace Bullying".  My primary concern is that the term "Workplace Bully" may be over-used due to convenient labeling and lack of mutual understanding.

You might want to check out my post on Bad Boss or Bad Job Fit... 

Now go Maximize Possibility!

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Chris Young helps organizations Maximize Possibility through talent management, cultural transformation, and strategic intervention.  Bring Chris in today!