Is there bullying in your workplace? Here's why

When superiors fire off insults, it is a symptom of instability within the organisation

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Bullying at work is a nasty phenomenon that has become more common. Its prevalence is a further aspect of hard economic times. To understand bullying at work, you can listen to the “human resources” experts or read academic papers. But best of all would be to study the incredible mea culpa published by the troubled Care Quality Commission (CQC) a few days ago. Here are some of the things that the Commission’s independent review into bullying within the organisation was told.

“She started the meeting by saying, ‘Do you think this is the right place for you?’. I was completely shocked”. Another staff member told the enquiry: “In the team meeting she shouted at the top of her voice, ‘You never, ever leave anything’.” In a further case, the reviewers heard: “My manager shouted at me, right in my face, in front of the team. After the meeting she apologised. I was off sick for six weeks”.

Here are three more examples. “I did the right thing and decided to discuss it with her. I said, ‘I think that you have been bullying me and I can’t work in this team’. She said, ‘Oh, when are you going then?’ As usual none of this ever gets written up – it’s her word against mine.” In another case: “She emailed all team members, ‘Can you help X plan her diary as she doesn’t seem to be doing enough work’.” Finally there was this one: “In front of the team he suggested I went to the gym or bought a bike so I could lose weight. I was deeply shocked and humiliated.”

While reading these examples, which come from a long list, I suddenly noticed an unexpected feature. A majority of the bosses quoted as handing out reprimands, using sarcastic language and firing off insults at their staff, were women. When men behave in this way, they are derided as being “macho”. But when women do it? In fact this aspect of bullying at work, that it is not a specifically masculine thing, points to a more general explanation: it is a symptom of instability within the organisation.

One researcher argues that the more staff have experienced periods of significant change in which they “lose” colleagues, the greater impact there is upon their morale and their motivation. The Care Quality Commission review quotes Professor Frans Cilliers’s view that bullying often surfaces in organisations during periods of significant change and transformation in which there are high levels of performance anxiety. The bullying behaviour is a manifestation of collective anxiety. And in these circumstances, some weak managers, finding themselves faced with situations for which nothing in their training or experience has prepared them, can find only one response, which to start shouting at their staff.

Now anybody who works for the Care Quality Commission, especially those whose career stretches back to its predecessors, can be forgiven for feeling anxious. Three bodies were brought together into a single organisation in 2008. Or to put it more realistically, three different cultures were forcibly merged. Then came austerity, which meant that vacancies had to be left unfilled. Furthermore, over the last three years the Care Quality Commission has restructured a number of times and has made major changes in its remit and scope of operations.

Now put yourself into the shoes of the staff as all this is done to them. They have lost colleagues as a result of a redundancy. They have been moved from the inspection teams with which they were familiar to new ones organised on different lines. Some have been asked to work from home rather than from the office – nice at first, but isolating in practice.

They have had to register and inspect dentists for the first time. They have found that some of their new colleagues have different qualifications from the usual ones. In addition, they have found themselves working for new managers who have been set different targets than before. Then on top of all this, the organisation itself has been heavily criticised and its top team more or less run out of town to be replaced by new leaders. It is not surprising that some staff have developed a “survivor” mentality and become fearful. So while some claims of being subjected to bullying will be well founded, others will be essentially defence mechanisms. As one manager told the review teams, “It is really difficult to manage poor performers without them taking out a grievance”.

None of the changes described above are bad in themselves. Many organisations have had to lose staff, reorganise themselves, take on new work and bring in new executives. In these days of austerity, all that is relatively normal. But during such testing times, what counts above all is, naturally, leadership.

In his book The Leader’s Code, Donovan Campbell writes something surprising coming from a former captain in the US Marine Corps who served in Iraq. He observes that the best and most effective leaders are those who practice kindness regularly and intentionally. Over time they produce the best and most effective teams. Properly used, it does not appear weak, undisciplined or unfair. I add that if that works under fire in Iraq, it would certainly be effective in the average British organisation that finds itself in a period of turmoil. There wouldn’t be any complaints of bullying.

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