Could You Be An (Accidental) Office Bully?

Could You Be An (Accidental) Office Bully?


by Contributor |
Published on

Maybe it starts with something trivial – you roll your eyes at someone’s idea in a meeting. Perhaps you never invite a particular colleague to lunch or sometimes make your junior go out and get your dry-cleaning, just because you can. If any of this sounds familiar, then the bully in your office might just be you.

A recent New York Times article, which described Amazon HQ as a ‘bruising workplace’, with one marketing executive claiming ‘nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk’, has shone a light on intimidating office environments. And new research from law firm Slater and Gordon has shown that more than 37% have been bullied at their desk. But what kind of person becomes an office bully? And could it happen without you realising?

‘I recently ran a workshop on working with difficult people and at the end someone put their hand up and said, “I think I might be an office bully,”’ says Joan Kingsley, organisational psychotherapist and co-author of The Fear-Free Organisation. ‘For many, it’s not until they have that lightbulb moment that it would even occur to them. And, of course, in some industries – law and financial services – bullying is often not only tolerated, but acceptable.’

Rosie*, 31, an analyst at a large financial software company, only realised she was an office bully after going to a training session. ‘We watched this video about how to deal with bullies and it slowly dawned on me that I was guilty of all the things on screen – berating someone’s skills in front of colleagues, spreading rumours, disrupting their work... I knew I could be blunt and that I had a “personality clash” with some people, but I never realised how aggressive or intimidating I could be. The incidents seemed trivial at the time, like bcc-ing my boss into a private email that made a team member look bad. Looking back, I only acted like this because I felt under pressure, and I thought that by making certain colleagues look worse, I’d come out better.’

Power games have long been a part of office politics, but the current climate of job insecurity could be making work atmospheres even more hostile. ‘I think organisations are pushing people to aggressively compete and keep up,’ says Kingsley. ‘There’s also more opportunity for intimidation – with email, the lack of human contact makes it easier to behave in a way you wouldn’t normally.’

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is a ‘repeated, health- harming mistreatment’ that takes the form of ‘verbal abuse, offensive conduct or behaviours which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating’, or ‘work interference-sabotage – which prevents work from getting done’. But where do you draw the line? After all, a new ruling from the Fair Work Commission even ruled that defriending someone on Facebook could be construed as bullying.

‘I always thought I wasn’t crossing the line between being difficult and being a bully,’ says Rosie. ‘But I realise now I did.’ Kingsley is keen to stress that there is a difference, though. ‘In social systems with a pecking order, it’s natural for higher-ups to exert power over subordinates. Bullying is when the sole goal is the experience of dominance, so asking for coffee just to make a colleague feel small, or using belittling tactics to try to control someone.’

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, roughly 58% of those bullied at work are women and 80% of female bullies target other women as their victims, often with emotional manipulation, isolation and gossiping.

‘It can be easier to deal with male bullying,’ says Kingsley. ‘It escalates more quickly into something out in the open – and can be dealt with. But even seemingly harmless banter can make someone feel like the butt of a joke. It’s all about intention. Deep down, you know if you’re deliberately trying to make someone feel small.’

For Rosie, that moment of realisation made her get help. ‘At my next appraisal I talked to my manager and I could tell from his face that people had complained about me. I was given management training, and talking about it helps keep things in check.’

So if you think you may be crossing that line – even accidentally – what can you do? ‘Sometimes just realising that triggering fear and anger in colleagues isn’t productive can be enough to make a bully change their behaviour,’ says Kingsley. ‘You may also benefit from one-on-one counselling, as bullies tend to have unresolved feelings of inadequacy, anger and sadness.’

It’s not always easy to spot a bully in your midst – especially if it’s you – but stopping to recognise our behaviour in the office, and noticing the effect it has on the people we spend our 9-5 with, is surely the first step to changing things

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