Monday December 10, 2012
How to understand and handle the workplace bully
PSYCHOLOGIST Karen Goonting shares some information on the kind of personality / problems that make someone a bully, and offers advice on how to handle the matter if you are the target of one.
1. Why bully?
1.1. There are several reasons from different perspectives that influence workplace bullying:
a. Personality – personality disorders or psychological problems
b. Organisational norms; or
c. Stressful work environments
A. Personality Disorders
Psychopathy: Consulting organisational psychologists in the United States have found that workplace bullies often have issues with social functioning, a distorted sense of reality, and lack skills for anger management. They react aggressively when provoked or when they think they have been insulted.
What is worrying is that such traits are difficult to identify in the typical hiring and promotion process unless a psychological test is administered (which most companies do not do). These types are serial bullies. They will continue bullying regardless.
Narcissistic personality disorder: This is where the person has a high and unrealistic sense of importance known as grandiosity, has a self-focused lack of empathy for others, is highly exploitative and manipulative. It often accompanies psychopathy as described above.
Narcissism has been found to be significantly related to indirect acts of bullying rather than direct or confrontational tactics and it has a strong relationship with the overall motivation to bully and a moderate relationship with satisfaction derived from bullying.
Histrionic and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders: A study comparing high-level British executives with criminal psychiatric patients at Broadmoor Hospital in Britain found that three out of 11 personality disorders were more common in the executives than in the disturbed criminals.
Histrionic personality disorder which includes superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity and manipulation
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder which includes excessive devotion to work, dictatorial tendencies, perfectionism, rigidity and stubbornness.
Narcissistic personality disorder, described above.
B. Psychological problems
Not all bullies are psychopaths. In many cases, the typical bully has “deep-seated psychological problems, including feelings of inferiority or inadequacy” and finds it hard to relate to others. There may be several reasons for this, one of which is rejection and neglect in childhood. Bullying is an attempt to gain power, status and authority to compensate for feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.
C. Social Leaning
Some bullies may have learned at an early age that their verbal ability, size or strength was the only effective tool they had for social behaviour.
1.3. Organisational norms
Some bullies may be context-specific. This means they are bullies at work but behave normally outside the work environment.
Where this occurs:
Often in environments where the work culture tacitly permits or encourages bullying, where establishing a pecking order or picking on a low-performing team member is “normal”. Also where a laissez faire style of leadership exists or management fails to notice, chooses to ignore or even participates in or rewards the bullying by rewards (salary increases and/or promotions), where forceful and high-achieving individuals are prized and the ends justify the means.
Experience shows that approximately 90% of complaints about workplace bullying are about things already known to management.
1.4. Stressful work environments
Stressful work environments may increase aggressiveness, for example, when organisations downsize, lay off employees, reassign work or job scopes, increase competition, or have uncomfortable work areas like over-crowding or unpleasant ambient temperatures. These situations may provoke some employees to take it out on others.
Note: It is possible to reduce bullying in some situations; for example, reducing the stress in work environments and deconstructing the organisational norms that encourage bullying. The other reasons for bullying mentioned in section 1.3 above are very difficult to change and certainly not within the capability of employers.
2. How should victims and employers deal with workplace bullying?
There is no single way to handle a workplace bully. There is also no way to completely prevent or remove a bully from a place of work. However, below are some methods which have worked.
|1.||Organisational Culture and Mobbing||Firstly ensure that your organisation is not in fact unintentionally encouraging and rewarding bullying and mobbing.|
|2.||De-stress or mediate a stressful work environment||Employers should take as many measures to reduce or mediate stressors in the work environment. Some are easier to do than others for example, workplace temperature and overcrowding.|
|3.||Recruitment Process||Many bullies especially those with psychopathic, histrionic or narcissistic tendencies are difficult to spot at typical intake interviews. Some highly secure or specialized posts require psychological tests to flag these traits. There are ethical issues involved in this approach.|
|4.||Induction and Training||Provide information and awareness training for ALL new and current employees (including top management) on what workplace bullying is and that it will not be tolerated.|
|5.||Performance Management||Ensure that your organisation’s performance assessments are not limited to the achievement of outputs and outcomes. Behaviour on the job, “soft skills” and pro-social behaviour must also be realistically recognised and rewarded (and not just paid lip service to or assigned very low assessment scores, as is often the case)|
|6.||Proper Complaint, Whistleblowing & Investigative Process||a. Have a safe, secure, confidential and objective process by which employees can inform management that they are being bullied or have witnessed bullying. In Asian societies, complaining and whistleblowing are less likely to occur so a safe system is essential. |
b. Ensure the process does not become a tool for spite, revenge, rumours or manipulation.
c. Ensure there is a process to safeguard the identity and confidentiality of the bully’s targets and whistleblowers.
|7.||Behaviour Management||a. Employers must ensure that they do not fall into the tendency of managing the behaviour and motivations of the victim rather than dealing with the unacceptable behaviour of the bully. Dealing with the bully is harder and hence usually avoided. |
b. Be prepared to deal with denial, belligerence, manipulation, superficial charm, defensiveness, hostility, threats, shouting, fear and tears in your investigations and addressing the problem.
c. State clearly to bullies what behaviour of theirs is unacceptable and needs to change immediately. State the consequences and document all of this.
d. Backlash and victimisation may occur. Ensure targets, whistleblowers and witnesses are protected.
e. Have proper follow-up and monitoring or all your efforts will be wasted.
f. The people in your organisation who handle this process must be trained in what to do. This is a technically difficult, highly stressful and emotionally draining aspect of organisational human relations.
|8.||Perseverance and Continuity||Do not give up. DO NOT blame the target if there is in fact bullying. As this process is so difficult, managers often give up and the process falls by the wayside, or management colludes with the bully by claiming that the targets are over-sensitive and the bullying behaviour really wasn’t that bad. Overseas research shows that 70% of managers side with the bully.|
|9.||Professional help||It is highly advisable that organisations get professional help for all of the above.|
3. How to deal with a bully
In the main article we talked about informing the bully personally, assertively and respectfully that you will not be bullied, with concrete examples of the bullying.
If that fails, or is too risky to attempt, you can try the following approach which is time-consuming but probably effective:
|NO.||WHAT TO DO - STRATEGY||EXPLANATION|
|1.||Prepare yourself emotionally||Remember, it is the bully who has a psychological problem, not you. It is very difficult to stand up to a bully, so be prepared to be stressed, afraid and discouraged. But know that it is all right to feel this way. What matters is that you persevere and know that you are not the problem.|
|2.||Educate yourself||a. Find out exactly what bullying is and what kind of behaviour is regarded as bullying. This will help you in your note-taking (see Item 3 below). You can get information from reliable Internet sources. |
b. Also find out from relevant organisations and if possible get legal advice on your rights, options and what you should and should not do.
|3.||TAKE NOTES of EVERY bullying occurrence||a. Nothing beats keeping data, documentation and evidence including emails that the bully may send you. These will make your complaint credible and difficult to refute if done correctly. |
b. Now that you know what constitutes bullying, take notes on every bullying incident, utterance, look and behaviour as well as the date, time and full details of who witnessed it or was present at each event
c. Do these notations unemotionally and methodically. Your notes will have more value this way.
d. ALSO, keep what you are doing (i.e. taking notes and collecting evidence) to yourself.
|4.||During an attack:||Do not react defensively. Be calm and do either one of the following:|
|.||Leave the area||a. DO NOT run or leave the building. Bullies will love that. |
b. Instead, make an excuse that you’re late for an appointment. Sound convincing and ensure you have an answer if the bully asks you what the appointment is for.
c. Never go to a private area like the restroom/toilet if you are being pursued by the bully.
|.||Distract the bully if possible||Ask about a file or a matter that needs the bully’s attention. This is sometimes enough to make the bullying stop (at least in this instance)|
|5.||Portray confidence||a. Look good. |
b. Carry yourself with confidence and speak confidently. Do not look fearful or cowed when the bully approaches you
c. Do not let the bully see that his/her behaviour is getting you down.
|6.||Stay in safe spots||Stay around people or in places where you know your bully is unlikely to attack.|
|7.||Do not get isolated||Bullies typically alienate targets from co-workers. Don’t let this happen to you. Each day talk to someone you haven’t engaged for a while.|
|8.||Protect personal information||Information about you will give your bully power. Tell him as little about yourself as possible.|
|9.||ABOVE ALL – TELL NO ONE (if possible)||The fewer people who know your strategy in stopping the bullying the better especially if it is against your superior.|
|10.||Complain in writing through proper channels||When you have sufficient documented evidence of the bullying, write to HR or better yet, get a lawyer to help you write to HR (they can ensure that you don’t run into legal problems). There is a chance the HR person may tell the bully, especially if s/he is in high management; or dissuade you from making a compliant. However, once it is in writing, HR has to address it. If HR does not do anything, at least you have grounds to say you took it though proper channels first and can then take it to management higher than HR or the bully.|
4. Are there any statistics in Malaysia?
Unfortunately, I do not know of and could not find reliable, comprehensive or recent statistics on bullying in Malaysian workplaces. This is echoed by the Malaysian Trade Union Congress secretary Andrew Lo, who in an interview with the Borneo Post Online published in January 2010, confirmed that there is very little official data that bullying occurs in Malaysian workplaces but that in his experience, it is prevalent.
There is limited data on workplace violence which is with the Labour Dept, but it is not granular enough to determine how much of that violence involves one-off individual altercations and how much is from bullying (which is repeated harassment).
For what it is worth, according to the Labour Dept there were about 4,000 cases of violence from 1990-1998. Unfortunately this data is also quite old.
Individual studies have found bullying among student trainees in the hospitality industry in Malaysia and among fleet supply depot personnel (though the bullying aspect of this study is not very clear).