Is there a word standing in the way of your empowerment?
When you hear the word BULLY, what comes to mind? How does it make you feel?
Could it be that employees are resistant to learning more about workplace bullying, in part, because of the word “bully” itself?
After becoming a target and then a student of the workplace bullying phenomenon, I began to see that the lessons learned from this experience were valuable for anyone working for an organization. But I didn’t need to look too much further than my own prior thoughts about bullying to see why some employees might not be embracing the message.
My hope is that by sharing the 3 reasons the word “bully” may have driven me away from empowerment instead of towards it, more employees will take heed of the warnings and stay in control of their lives.
Before we begin, let’s explore the origin of the term “workplace bullying”…
The term ‘Workplace Bullying’
In 1988, Andrea Adams, a journalist from Britain, covered a story of 50 workers being terrorized by their boss at a renowned bank. What she’d learn from these workers’ stories would result in the first known use of the term, “workplace bullying.”
Ms. Adams saw a direct link between school bullying and workplace bullying as they both involved the use of power for domination, produced fear and resulted in great harm.
Over the course of 4+ years, these workers were subjected to common bullying tactics such as yelling, name calling, poking, throwing papers, and loud tirades. But in addition to these typical bullying behaviors, these workers also described what could be considered more trivial to the untrained ear.
This brings us to the first way the word “bully” may get in our way.
# 1 – Bullying is so much more than we give it credit for
It’s often difficult for targets to recognize subtle hostility, especially when these actions go against expected norms in the workplace and can be explained away, denied or downplayed by others.
After weeks of requesting a meeting with someone to discuss my concerns at work, a high-level manager invited me to “take as much time as I needed” to share what had been happening. But as I spoke, she repeatedly checked her watch, eyed the door, and cleared her throat. This type of dismissive body language continued and it ever so slowly began to wear away at my sense of dignity.
Below is a list of additional insidious actions that are commonly used to harm an employee’s personal and professional well-being:
- Giving unachievable tasks
- Removing areas of responsibility and giving people trivial tasks
- Taking credit for others ideas
- Withholding information
- Ignoring or excluding someone
- Spreading malicious rumors
- Constantly undervaluing effort
- Persistent criticism
It’s important to remember that it’s the repeated attempts to humiliate, intimidate, undermine and devalue a worker that greatly diminishes an employee’s mental and physical health.
#2 – Ain’t nobody got time for bullying – (Framing)
There are countless studies on the ways our language frames our thoughts and actions, and this is not surprising. With so much information to absorb on a daily basis, our minds act as a filter so we can make sense of the world quickly.
When we hear certain words (names, labels), our brain creates short cuts and produces vivid pictures in our minds, casting aside information that seems unnecessary. This could be one of the most common reasons we dismiss information on bullying; The majority of us may think we already understand bullying, dismissing erroneously that it has anything to do with us.
In addition, our filtering process could explain why certain abusive behaviors in the workplace are difficult to recognize. If what is being experienced doesn’t fit a familiar pattern, we try to make sense of it in other ways. Sadly, this often results in the target internalizing the blame.
#3 – The stigma associated with bullying
In Psychology, Labeling Theory suggests the very label we use may directly influence someone’s self-identity and behavior, both with respect to how others see them and how they now see themselves.
This certainly seemed to be true for me.
About a month after resigning from my job, the research I’d done led to the discovery that I’d been bullied. My emotional response took a sudden, drastic turn.
My self-confidence took a blow as I gave in to the notion that I was not as strong as I thought I was. Shame set in as I realized I had allowed people to treat me in such an abusive way. Embarrassment took hold as I worried what others would think of me.
Once I was able to break through the stigma surrounding my prior beliefs about bullying, I was able to shift the shame and embarrassment back to the organization where it belonged.
What can happen when we embrace the term “bully”
Over the past year, we’ve seen exactly what can happen when a group of employees identify an abuse in the workplace, reframe their understanding, and break free from the stigma surrounding it.
The brave woman and men of the #MeToo movement broke the silence and collectively demanded accountability. In the past 12 months, we’ve witnessed many Goliaths fall to their knees as a result.
Their outcome gives me great hope for the future for all those suffering harm in the workplace.
I am reminded of a particular therapy session I had late last summer. It was towards the end of my employment and I remember sitting across from my therapist in a state of disbelief as I started to accept the reality that I may need to consider giving up my career in order to remain healthy. He asked a question I would not soon forget…”Did you REALLY think YOU could take down a corporation?”…
One year later, I imagine myself back in that office…but this time as an Empowered Employee. An employee that got past the word that was standing in the way of her empowerment.
I imagine him asking me again…but this time I wouldn’t waver in my belief of what I could do when joining forces with others who have faced such an injustice… I hear myself responding with a question myself: “Are you asking if those of us that have suffered from workplace bullying can take down our Goliaths?
YES!” I would say, “I do believe #WE CAN TOO.”
Wherever you are in your career, I wish you success, peace, and most of all, good health,