Is the term ‘bullying’ becoming less useful? ‘Bullying’ is a shorthand to denote a type of abrasive or aggressive behaviour that otherwise we have to define at some length. The trouble with the term is that it becomes a label. We can recognise bullying behaviour, we all know or have known bullies. But who, ever, has been able or willing to recognise this about themselves?
Have you ever known anyone who has been prepared to accept that they are a bully?
Far more commonly, the reaction of someone to being confronted with the impact of their behaviour is one of shock and, probably, disbelief. Most Respondents of complaints about bullying or harassment are horrified and frequently themselves feel victimised by the complaint.
Part of the reason for this disconnect is that when we see this type of behaviour in others (particularly if we are on the receiving end) we tend to ascribe the motivation for it to their moral character – we will usually label their ‘bad’ behaviour as bullying and see them as ‘bad’ people. However if we ourselves indulge in the same sort of behaviour, we know there is a rational reason for it – ‘the job needs to be done, so do it’; ‘I need it – NOW’. We know we aren’t fundamentally bad people, but there is a situational demand on us, and we pass that pressure on to get what we need. This is known as ‘Attribution theory’.
Sometimes good – or at least fairly good – leaders do bad things; bad leadership is rather common; and sometimes leaders are both good and bad at the same time (e.g. promoting the needs of the organisation in a way that is detrimental to the employee being managed).
We are not static in our behaviours, and move between these quadrants at different times and under different circumstances
In my experience from investigating formal complaints of bullying and harassment, and of reviewing organisational responses to bullying situations, one result of the stigma attached to the ‘bully’ label is that whatever the policy definition, there can be a reluctance to uphold complaints of bullying. There is often an organisational response blame the Complainant. And although policies may state that it is not the intention of the perpetrator that is relevant but the impact on the recipient, even so the tendency exists to ‘understand’ the organisational needs as causes of the manager’s behaviour rather than to label it as bullying, unless the bullying behaviour is seen as being intentional. I think of this as a form of ‘corporate’ Attribution theory.
So while labelling people as ‘bullies’ may be cathartic for individuals, is it an appropriate or helpful strategy for organisations and businesses? All of us will probably own up to having occasionally behaved poorly towards colleagues; very few of us will own up to having behaved in a bullying manner.
If I’m asked whether I may have behaved abrasively or abruptly towards someone, well, perhaps I might accept that.
It is time to recognise that we all have the potential to behaviour negatively towards our colleagues sometimes. But the stigma of the label ‘bully’ does not help improve working relationships or the ability of organisations to manage internal conflict in a sensible fashion. Perhaps promoting ‘Zero Tolerance’ is counter-productive, and simply drives the problem underground, rather than promoting healthy debate and better understanding of workplace behaviours. Maybe now is the time to update our Bullying and Harassment investigation policies and to begin to think more widely and positively, along the lines of promoting Dignity at Work.