Fight or flight: how to beat the bully

Bullies abound. It is a sad fact of working life that you can’t avoid contact with people who shout, intimidate, undermine and dump unreasonable amounts of work on your desk.

But there are incidences tactics you can use to avoid becoming a victim. These may involve making sure that you are not the target, learning how to cope till you get out from under the thumb, or fighting back.

US management professor Robert Sutton expounds the value of developing indifference and emotional detachment. In other words: learning not to give a stuff.

“Passion is an overrated virtue in organisational life, and indifference is an underrated virtue,” he writes in his widely read The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

This book (Hachette Book Group USA, is 2007) has become a self-help Bible for the working oppressed.

He continues: “When your job feels like a prolonged personal insult, focus on just going through the motions, on caring as little as possible about the jerks around you, and think about something more pleasant as often as you can – just get through each day until something changes your job or something better comes along.”

Obviously, there will be a flow-on effect to your productivity, but when you are just trying to maintain your around mental health against the onslaught of a bully, worrying about the company bottom line should fall to the people who hire the bullies and allow them to continue their destructive behaviours.

Australian psychologist Evelyn Field, who consults in this area, gives the thumbs-up to this approach but counsels that victims should educate themselves about the tactics that are available to them and then try to select the right one to defeat the efforts of that particular bully.

“You actually have some options, but it is up to you to choose,” she says.

The most obvious thing to do is leave, but this is not always immediately possible for people with families and mortgages to support and careers to nurture.

It may be that the best approach is to have the courageous conversation: tell the person that their behaviour is not acceptable, or ask for a meeting to discuss the problem you are having with their behaviour.

However, if that person is intimidating, you will have to be brave to stand your ground and not everybody life is equipped to stand up for themselves.

You may need a counsellor or career coach to help steel your nerve, she says.

If the bully is one of the psychopaths that walk among us (3 to 4 per cent of the population), this approach may not be successful and Field advises people to get expert advice before tackling them.

Making yourself a small target is another tactic. “Keep your head down, minimise your hours at work, go walking at lunch time, talk to everyone and be friendly, and don’t make any waves,” she says.

Sutton advises to limit contact, avoid meetings, be polite but impersonal, avoid snapping back, and don’t sit down during meetings (it makes them shorter).

Or you can suck up. Field says you could become adept at the saccharine comment: “I’d never be able to do your job. I don’t know how you do it,” or “The feedback from your presentation last week was amazing.”

Again, be friendly and bring lamingtons for everybody, says Field. Another way so to protect yourself is to be seen as well-connected. If you are on familiar terms with the bosses, you are less likely to be targeted.

Field suggests you should use any excuse to be seen shooting the breeze with the “higher ups”, making them laugh and appearing to be sharing confidences.

It depends on the bully (some will target tall poppies, while others prefer to monster the meek), but your posture and dress can also stop you being identified as a potential victim.

Particularly for women, good grooming is a sign you can project that you have good self-esteem.

Field recommends neat hair and earrings and well-manicured nails. “Jangly bracelets also say ‘listen to me’,” she says.

“It is better than projecting that you have nothing to say, there’s nothing to notice, so you can walk over me.”

Group action is a particularly successful tactic. Sutton suggests recruiting other targets and witnesses to provide support and back-up if you decide to take the issue up the line and to human resources. A journal of bullying incidences by a number of people is hard to ignore.

You can also take away their power by not taking them seriously, laugh at their insults, share stories with colleagues and forward the bully’s nasty emails to the group… and their superior.

“If you can’t get reform or expel the bully, find small ways to gain control and to fight back – it will make you feel more powerful and just might convince the bully to leave you and others others alone,” writes Sutton in his blog.

Field says you could make a joke at their expense: “If you are going to yell at me, shall we make an appointment so you can have a really good go in your office?”

One of Field’s clients tells how she learned to deal with the verbal abuse and physical threats from her boss, who is also the owner of the company.

Amanda has been working as a mid-level manager at the firm for five years and for most of that time coped by cowering in a corner and hoping he wouldn’t notice her.

“I was a fall bit like a battered wife,” she says, explaining why she has stayed so long. “I kept and thinking if I just worked harder and worked better, he would stop getting angry at me.”

Being quite stubborn herself, she decided that – although he would clearly like her to resign – she would not be pushed out until she had a good job to go to.

With counselling from Field, she has consciously changed her behaviour towards her boss. She picks her moments and, when there are other people around in an open-plan environment, she will address him with: “Hi, how are you.”

“If he is giving a presentation or talking to the whole organisation, I make eye contact and make a point of holding his gaze. I just feel like I have got a plan and I know I want to get out,” she says.

The first time she tried out the new “emboldened Amanda”, the reaction was electric: “He literally turned around in shock and his eyes said ‘Is she really talking to me?’,” says Amanda.

She is not transforming him, but she is feeling stronger for her job hunt. “You don’t want to go into an interview feeling scared and intimidated,” she says.

Amanda has given some thought to why she was singled out by this man and thinks it may have been because she had to work very closely with him and some people reserve their worst treatment for those who are closest.

“And I have my own issues with self-esteem and maybe he has picked up on that,” she says.

Tellingly, the boss’s behaviour has become part of the culture in the company. People observe it, but don’t stand up for the victims and other bullies cope have emerged over the years.

“We were having a meeting about the HR department – where it should be located on the floor. And the HR manager said it should have frosted glass so people couldn’t be seen when they burst into tears in there,” says Amanda.

“They laughed. They thought it was funny.”


Teachers can be Bullied at Work

Last October, the BBC news highlighted the large compensation payout of over half a million dollars, (AUD) awarded to a former teacher who had been badly bullied. The amount was for personal injury and the damage, from a breakdown, to his health. This teacher had originally been sacked on grounds of gross misconduct. Later it was found that he had been bullied for five years by the former principal of the school. There were no grounds for misconduct, just a vindictive principal. He had support from his union, family and local paper, but not from the governing body of the school or the education authority.

The largest Website on workplace bullying is run by Dr Tim Field (no relation). He said that teachers and lecturers have consistently been the largest group of callers to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line since its inception in January 1996 and inquirers to Bully OnLine at www.bullyonline.org. Teacherline (UK) reports that teachers are four times more likely to experience stress at work than employees in other professions.

The evidence is emerging all over the world that teachers can be bullied by other teachers, senior staff, school council, students and parents. Some schools take pride in their school policy, which deals with student bullying, while concurrently allowing their senior staff and school council to bully teachers. Schools use bullying tactics to get rid of staff. Others use authoritarian attitudes towards naughty students and use this witch-hunt mentality to attack their colleagues. Some foster an attitude of promote the men, while using the women to do the dirty establishment work. Some schools allow parents to threaten and abuse staff while others allow discrimination and exclusion to parents who are different. Some schools disguise bullying and categorise the teacher as stressed.

While most of us were growing up, bullying was regarded as just a part of life. Even the most responsible parents accepted bullying as a school hazard. Today, most parents won’t accept it in any form. Some take legal action. More recently employees, academics and trade union officials are beginning to identify bullying in the workplace, to research and evaluate its impact.

Basically, bullying involves an abuse of power. It can be defined as ‘ all those repeated actions and practices that are directed to one or more workers, which are unwanted by the victim, which may be done deliberately or unconsciously, but cause humiliation, offence and distress, and this may interfere with job performance, and/or cause an unpleasant working environment. (Einarsen 1998) There are many types of bullying behaviours. They range from verbal abuse, blame, humiliation, personal and professional denigration, overt threats, harassment (eg racial, sexual) manipulation of job specifications, aggressive e-mails or notes, professional exclusion, sabotage of career, whistleblower attack, blackmail, criminal assault and murder.

Research reveals that 1 in 6 students are bullied every week in an Australian school. Nothing much seems to change when they grow up and join the workforce, apart from the damage being far greater. According to Paul Mccarthy, Griffith’s University, one in four will experience workplace bullying during their working career. About 10-12% has experienced it in the last 12 months. One in thirty workers is a serial bully. Thus, my current guesstimate based on recent research is that about 15% of people are being regularly bullied in the workplace.

Ultimately, anyone can be a victim or bully. Bullying is caused by many different interacting factors including being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These include the fact that the bully believes that they can get away with it, and generally they can. This includes the loud mouthed, insecure, generally less competent bully, who has poor leadership skills and the sociopathic bully who enjoys seeing people suffer. The fact that the organisational system does not promote equality and condones the abuse of power. The target who may be a quiet achiever, who does not know how to confront the situation effectively or leave.

When a worker becomes sick and tired of constant abuse, seeing their friends and colleagues forced to leave because of a serial bully, some find the courage to investigate union and legal action. Lawyers are on stand-by, well prepared and waiting for those with courage to approach them and use whatever legal opportunities are available to obtain validation or sue for justice. Work cover insurance companies are finding that a bullied teacher, out on stress leaves, is a very costly expense. They will place the cost of higher premiums onto the bullying organisation. Some have successfully sued bullies.

According to the Workplace Bullying Project Team, Griffith’s University, (2001) a recent impact and cost assessment calculated that workplace bullying costs Australian employers billions of dollars a year, when hidden and lost opportunity costs are considered. Since 1996 over 1,000 teachers and principals in the state of Victoria, Australia, have received over $34 million in compensation for stress and injury to health caused mostly by excessive workloads, abuse, lack of support and recognition, and having to deal with difficult students.

Just think about the bullied teacher’s weekly salary, cost of medical and psychological treatment, replacement costs while they are injured, loss of accumulated wisdom built up over many years, the legal costs, the impact on other teachers, such as a terrifying fear that if they do something which is regarded as being a troublesome activity they too will be targeted and lose their job. Teachers go into survival mode not a creative mode. Everyone’s work will slack off. The students will bear the brunt of unmotivated teachers.

According to research by Norway’s Prof. Stale Einarsen, victims of workplace bullying who suffer a post traumatic stress disorder, can take up to 4-5 years to recover. Unfortunately, the stages a workplace victim of bullying experiences and the appropriate treatment has been inadequately researched. Many psychologists, psychiatrists, general practitioners and lawyers do not distinguish adequately between chronic stress and trauma. Thus treating the bullied teacher is also handicapped by the lack of adequate research. Now do your sums to work out what this is costing a school!

Action needs to take place on a number of levels within a school. The first level is to develop a Code of Conduct, which includes appropriate processes and procedures to identify and deal with bullying, and training resources to reduce it. All staff require a preventative and educational program in order that they can recognise what is happening and know where to get help. Employees require appropriate assistance to deal with bullying. Crisis intervention procedures need to be explicit and followed equitably. Investigations and dispute resolution procedures need to be conducted by trained professionals, with respect to the Laws of Natural Justice. Sanctions need to be applied to employees who lack empathy, insight, appropriate relating skills and an inability to listen to clear feedback and change inappropriate behaviours. The bully too needs help in learning more appropriate ways of getting the job done without resorting to mental torture.

Ultimately best school practices means looking after teachers in order that they can achieve the schools aims and objectives and that they feel a valued integral part of the process. It is up to every school to take responsibility for creating a safe and productive working environment for its staff and deal with bullying effectively when it occurs.


The lesson from DJs: don’t just blame individuals

SO DAVID Jones follows a well-worn path and gets rid of a troublemaker, albeit a high-profile one. I am really sad that the ”name, blame and shame” approach adopted by David Jones in regards to Mark McInnes is another version of a knee-jerk, outdated, adversarial manner of dealing with people problems. Perhaps he was hit by his own boomerang, but in fact, nobody apart from lawyers actually gains.

In the first instance, I doubt he apologised to the employee he abused, who may be affected for a long time, the bystanders and any others who have been affected, nor the colleagues who respected his work and whom he has suddenly been pressured to abandon.

Once the dust settles, I doubt that staff will be safer at David Jones from any form of harassment. This will probably be due to the current fashion for “tick and flick” harassment and bullying training. I suspect that it will affect Mark McInnes’s career, which seemed to be otherwise very productive. As David Jones holds an esteemed position in the fashion stakes, one could even argue that shareholders, the public and everyone else loses from his sudden departure.

Given that we have had legislation or guidelines on bullying and harassment for some time, it’s not rocket science to assume that it will occur in many organisations and therefore, like dealing with weeds or dust, needs to be constantly addressed?

Surely a modern day organisation can implement a few simple policies as regards bullying and harassment, provide staff training for everyone, from the board downwards, instigate support for distressed staff, coaching for staff who need to reprogram inappropriate ways of behaving and implement consequences early on, as well as employ respectful dispute resolution procedures, long before an employee requires legal help and long before some reach the pinnacle of their career, to be sabotaged by knee-jerk reactions.

The research discussed at the recent Seventh International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, in June 2010, clearly demonstrates that harassment and bullying are condoned and enabled by toxic leadership cultures. According to the keynote speaker, Norwegian professor Stale Einarson, organisations who have either highly authoritarian or laissez-faire leadership styles foster abuse or allow it to fester. He believes that leaders are neither good nor bad, they can be both constructive and destructive.

Whereas Laura Crawshaw, an American expert on abrasive bosses, said that most bullies were unaware of the impact of their toxic behaviour on their victims and most employers were scared of intervening or lacked the skills to do so. But the majority of workplace bullies, and this may apply with sexual harassment, are coachable and “with appropriate intervention, can demonstrate interpersonal competence”.

Does this mean that the board of David Jones should take responsibility for Mark McInnes being allowed to continue his inappropriate behaviour? Surely in an industry noted for its attention to detail, his behaviour would not have gone unnoticed? Why didn’t someone take him aside earlier in his career and warn him about the impact of his uninvited, inappropriate behaviours?

Like other employees, was he not also subject to performance reviews as well as his relationships with staff? How many warnings did he receive? We push restorative practices in our schools, why weren’t collaborative solutions considered at David Jones?

Surely they are not blind, yet they turned the other eye until the situation escalated, thereby compelling Ms Fraser-Kirk to go in desperation to lawyers who specialise in bullying, harassment and Fair Work practices.

In an industry where a stitch in time saves nine, why wasn’t the situation handled with kid gloves rather than forcing a young woman to find legal weapons to intervene and obtain safety and validation? Although her case has been successful, I have seen many clients suffer high levels of distress that this creates, despite their validation.

Unfortunately, there are many organisations where the boards of management have no interest in the people they employ, their welfare or in creating a psychologically healthy workplace where employees who are respected work harder, and where performance and productivity improve as a direct consequence. Most, like David Jones, will blame the individual rather than their own shoddy values and managerial practices and maintain a blind spot to the costs associated directly and indirectly with stressed-out employees.

Clearly these are not psychologically healthy work practices. Although no director would be caught dead with a three-year-old mobile phone, they reflect an out-of-date approach to managing staff difficulties that devalues human capital and denies its relationship to improving performance.

I hope other organisations will take note and implement remedial action earlier and find collaborative ways to resolve harassment and bullying instead of waiting until the situation has reached a crisis point and then bully the employee who has experienced harassment, or their oblivious perpetrator, to leave, under a dark cloud of humiliation.


Employers have failed to help victims of workplace bullying

Targets are brainwashed into feeling powerless and paralysed.

MAGISTRATE Peter Lauritsen’s ruling on the culpability of those responsible for the subtle and sadistic workplace bullying that led to Brodie Panlock’s death in 2006 may reduce the acceptance of such behaviour in the workplace.

This is only a small indication of justice and the manner in which victims are further abused by adversarial employers and our insurance and medico-legal systems. Nevertheless, it is a sign things may be finally, although slowly, changing for the better.

But the most-asked question is why don’t people just leave a toxic workplace. It’s hard to understand how a victim can stay and become increasingly hurt.

Philip Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment, conducted at Stanford University in 1971 with bright, normal university students, demonstrated that they had emotionally deteriorated to the point where after six days of abuse by their peers he ceased the experiment.

We know about learnt helplessness, where women stay because they have lost the confidence to leave abusive relationships.

We know that some parents keep their children at the same school for years, despite their child’s constant complaints of being bullied. But why didn’t this young woman leave the cafe?

Bullying occurs at any level in the workplace and studies show that one in five employees will experience it, more in some workplaces.

Strangely, most employers don’t understand that employees who feel safe and respected work harder and achieve more.

The problem is that most employers don’t truly educate their staff to identify bullying, provide systemic solutions to rectify the causes, develop interventions and empower victims to create ways to block bullying behaviours. Most policies are superficial, formed without adequate staff collaboration, regular monitoring, comprehensive training programs, meaningful consequences or conciliatory, restorative dispute-resolution processes.

Instead of identifying bullying as a sign of a toxic culture and managerial incompetence, many employers address a bullying case by attacking the confused, hurt victim, whose brain has already been scrambled by the abuse from co-workers.

Thus the victims face a gauntlet of hazards. Do they ever get flowers, balloons or caring phone calls from their employer when they are home, too injured to work? In most cases, victims are sabotaged by adversarial, aggressive or passive managers keen to avoid liability.

Many wait for promissory notes about employee safety and justice to materialise. While they wait for assistance, the bullying escalates like a slow-growing cancer.

Most don’t understand that they are being bullied until they are injured.

Just like Humpty Dumpty or the terracotta warriors of Xian, they have fallen to pieces, curdled, disintegrated. Their spirit is broken, their good name trampled on; they have been humiliated in front of peers. Their fight/flight instinct is paralysed and they become stuck in time, obsessing over what is occurring but unable to take action.

According to Canadian psychologist Pat Ferris, brain scans will soon show the extent of their serious injuries. Unlike the victim of a hold-up, their injuries are often only validated when there is legal evidence of bullying, which is hard to prove when bullying is subtle or there are many minor acts, rather than by their medical and psychological symptoms.

Besides, the current state of research seriously restricts general practitioners and mental health professionals. Many can’t distinguish between the biochemically different injuries of stress versus trauma.

There are no adequate evidence-based diagnoses and consequently no suitable treatments for victims of workplace bullying trauma. Few mental-health professionals know how to identify their symptoms. No wonder victims face a potpourri of diagnoses when they confront a medico-legal examination. Few have had training to deal with this crippling injury, leading some to blame victims for their personalities, without assessing work culture, management, bullies, employers and bystanders.

Worksafe and Medicare pay scant attention to the needs of this seriously injured group and the many years of treatment they require. Many caring mental-health professionals make big financial sacrifices to treat them.

Despite the excellent work being done by the National Centre Against Bullying and by many schools, the rates of school bullying have not fallen significantly.

So what hope do victims of workplace bullying have when they are unaware of the hazards facing them, their employers don’t care, safety and legal justice is virtually impossible, mental-health professionals are under-resourced, bullying awareness programs are a farce and instead of restorative practices to deal with disputes, employers unleash a battery of adversarial tactics?

No wonder victims become brainwashed into feeling hopeless, powerless and paralysed.

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