Learning Points: School bullies grow up to be work bullies

Learning Points: School bullies grow up to be work bullies

As we move out of our adolescence and into adulthood, we can often feel relief, especially if our teenage years were punctuated by negative experiences like bullying, exclusion, or aggression.

So, as we enter the adult world of professional work, we tend to think that that type of juvenile behaviour is behind us and will certainly not be waiting for us around the corridors or in the offices of wherever we seek employment. 

However, our working life can significantly impact our mental well-being and can be far more devastating than those earlier experiences.

Recent research elucidated that 45% of professionals had been bullied. This is a striking statistic and should serve as a reminder for all of us as we excitedly launch off in our careers. I have received many letters over the last three weeks from readers who felt they were being targeted by an individual or individuals in work.

Some of what I read was truly unsettling, as readers described the mental torture being perpetrated on them by a work colleague. So, in this week’s column, I am going to outline what you can do if you are on the other end of someone’s maladaptive behaviour.

1. First of all, it’s not your fault.

We internalise other people’s behaviour so quickly. A bully targets someone for many reasons. Try to gain some insight into why this kind of negative pattern of communication has developed between you both.

There may be no reason why you have been targeted, but it is always important to analyse how we are in any piece of communicational pattern and how we position the interlocutor in that conversation. This is not victim blaming, but trying to ascertain how to approach the situation with a new lens. As I said, there might be no reason, but at least you will know that, having examined your relational dynamic.

2. Never ignore bullying behaviour.

Bullies work on the premise that they can bully you. Show them they have misread you. In my conversations with corporate workers, they often delineate a very subtle form of bullying. The person perpetrating the offence understands that their behaviour is not acceptable in the work place, so they target someone covertly.

Bullies are astute at understanding human behaviour. So they know how to get away with what they are doing. For example, a seemingly innocuous comment is made to upset or provoke a response from the targeted person and when the latter becomes irate and annoyed, they are made to seem unreasonable or unhinged and a dismissive follow-up comment — like, ‘what’s wrong with you, it’s only a joke; lighten up’ — further victimises the targeted person.

Do not allow yourself to be positioned like this. If someone does say something that is layered with meaning or context, call them out on it in a neutral way. Say something like, ‘what is it exactly that you are trying to say?’ or ‘what’s the joke? Explain it to me’. This way, you are exposing their passive-aggressive behaviour in front of people without taking the bait. This will make them think twice about targeting you.

3. Keep a journal of the behaviour.

If it persists, you are going to have to report it. It is the job of the manager in the office to provide a happy, safe, and healthy environment. Build a case against the perpetrator, so when you do report it, you have exact dates and incidents to outline to your boss. Let’s say the bully is your boss: talk to your boss first, before reporting, and explain how his behaviour is making you feel.

You would be surprised at the amount of times I hear managers describe their complete lack of understanding of the depths of pain their behaviour had caused a co-worker. If it doesn’t stop, you should go to thier superior with your journal and describe exactly what is happening.

4. Talk to someone.

The bully’s biggest weapon is silence. For it is in those silent spaces that abuse finds such comfort. Don’t give them that power. Talk to a counsellor to try to gain some insight into what is happening to you and how to cope with it. 

Your partner will, more than likely, be very upset and anxious for you, as you go into an unhealthy work environment. Protect yourself by learning coping strategies.

We all deserve to work in a healthy environment, free from abuse or bullying. We should never accept anyone’s attempt to diminish us. A bully wants to take your power from you; never give them what they are after. Show them that they grossly misread you and the situation, and that if they don’t desist from their behaviour, you will take it further and expose them for the bully they are.

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