As more and more people both search for jobs and quit jobs to become independent workers or entrepreneurs, we are forced to take a closer look at the world of work overall. Traditionally, work has been approached purely as an obligation in America. The attitude has been, “You take any honest work you’re offered, and you give your all to that work, no matter what. Work exists to earn a paycheck, not to please you.” Today’s culture tends to promote adopting the exact opposite view. “I don’t have to do anything unless I enjoy every minute of it. It’s all about me, and if something is not pleasing to me, I not only should, I am entitled to simply walk away.” But for most of us, reality is somewhere down the middle. We understand that bills must be paid, commitments and contracts must be honored, and even the best jobs have their unpleasant parts. But we also understand the harm that can come to us if a workplace is unsafe, exploitative, or otherwise abusive.
Abusive behavior in the workplace is often called “workplace bullying.” While we typically associate bullying with children and teens, it can exist among adults too, and the workplace is a common setting. Here are just a few more of the myths we hold on to about workplace bullying.
“Workplace bullying” is not real. It’s just a way for whiney, entitled people to get their way.
The term “workplace bullying” refers to a situation in which someone at work uses positions of power to intimidate, sabotage, humiliate, deceive, frighten, or control someone else at work. It does not include everything that happens at work that you might not like, or isolated incidents where a supervisor or colleague is less than pleasant. Some do misuse the term, but just because some people use a term incorrectly does not mean the real problem is nonexistent. People declare themselves “triggered” when they are in fact annoyed, upset, disgusted, saddened, discouraged, angered, sickened, irritated, or discouraged. While this can be unpleasant, it does not mean that people who suffer from PTSD due to extreme trauma do not experience flashbacks in response to certain stimuli (The correct usage of “triggering” and “triggered”.)
That coworker who insists upon holding loud personal conversations on the company phone, not caring who else has to do their work, is not a workplace bully. Neither is the office curmudgeon who is snarly and generally unpleasant to everyone. But if someone is positioning himself outside the door of one coworker hoping to sabotage the person’s business Zoom meeting with that phone call, or the supervisor makes a point of being warm and welcoming to everyone but curt and rude only to the two people who work under him, that is workplace bullying.
“Workplace bullying” is just a politically correct term for someone being an everyday jerk.
Workplace bullying goes deeper than simply working for or with your standard, everyday unpleasant individual. These people can certainly make you miserable, but the workplace bully engages in deliberate, targetted behavior designed to exert an inappropriate level of power over another person. While the workplace jerk may snap at everyone who says “Good Morning,” the workplace bully will make a point to only snap at a select few people, in view of a crowd of higher ups, just to watch the target slink away in embarrassment. The everyday jerk will do all he can to make sure he’s the center of attention in meetings and allow nobody else to be heard. The workplace bully only prevents her targets from participating, or hides the announcement from certain people to make them miss an important meeting.
If you just ignore the workplace bully, they will stop doing what they do, and leave their target alone.
Bullying is done so that the bully can feel powerful in some way. A bully who is ignored is more likely to step up their efforts to feel powerful at the expense of other people rather than accept being ignored and find something else to do. Ignoring the person, or at least ignoring the bullying behavior, may indeed be the best course of action. But it will not be a sure fix for the bullying. Nor will it solve the problems the bullying may cause.
Someone who regularly hides files and folders from a certain coworker in order to embarrass him in meetings will not likely stop if people just pretend they don't notice. The "charge" they're getting is coming from watching the target's embarrassment later, so neither confrontation nor making a point of pretending not to realize it was them is going to change their behavior.
The rest of the staff or other group can solve the problem by banding together against the bully.
This plotline makes an inspiring novel, play, or movie, but it almost never works out as seamlessly in real life as it does in a story. For this to be effective, absolutely everyone who comes in contact with the bully in a professional capacity would have to agree to a plan to cope with the bullying behavior, and do their part. But we all know real people don’t function that way. In real life, there is always going to be that person afraid to speak up and possibly become the next target, or get demoted or fired. There is always going to be that person who enjoys soaking up some of the limelight the bully gains when they abuse their targets. And there are always going to be people who simply do not care enough to do anything about it. Thinking the target only has to make everyone aware of the situation and ask for their support and assistance is nice, but naïve, idea.
The bully has low self-esteem. If you prop up their ego a bit more, they won’t need to bully anyone.
Author and San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Dr. Jeanne Twenge has written extensively about narcissism and bullying. Twenge often argues that narcissistic, bullying people do not need to learn to love themselves more. They need to learn respect for other people. Contrary to popular belief, bullies actually love themselves very much. They love themselves so much, in fact, that they think their need to feel powerful, admired, feared, or whatever charge they’re getting out of their bullying behavior, supersedes another person’s right to simply do his or her job or go about their day in peace.
All workplace bullying can do is make you feel bad. It can’t really hurt you or your job.
Being the target of a bully in any situation does much more than just give a target a bad day. Bullying worsens workplace stress. Excessive stress can play a factor in worsening heart issues, depression, anxiety, energy levels, and focus. It can make it difficult to impossible to complete the tasks of a job, leading to decreased productivity.
Workplaces that ignore or encourage workplace bullying can earn bad reputations among potential clients, employees, or contractors. This of course can lead to a shortage of people willing to supply the labor, services, or goods the company needs to function.
Although it is not as openly discussed as workplace issues such as low wages, unreasonable job requirements, lack of benefits, and sexual harassment, workplace bullying is a serious, but often misunderstood issue in today’s places of business.