Is bullying at the workplace acceptable under the guise of extracting performance?

Is bullying at the workplace acceptable under the guise of extracting performance?

The competitive environment in today’s workplace is often misread by many employees and managers, who take it as an opportunity to bring out the bully in them in the guise of extracting performance. The culture and mindset of getting things done at any cost can do more harm to an organization or department than good.

But is the corporate world realizing this and are they putting in place the necessary measures to identify and remove the bullying behaviour and bullies from their organizations? What more can they do?

Before we go any further into this, let’s first understand what’s bullying.

Bullying defined

“Bullying may be characterized as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. ” National Bullying helpline – UK

The Workplace Bullying Institute sees it as ” abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work-interference, i.e., sabotage, which prevents work from getting done.”

Bullying behaviours

UNISON, UK’s largest union serving more than 1.3 million members, breaks bullying down to these behaviours. Some of which are obvious and easy to identify. Others are subtle and difficult to explain. Examples of bullying behaviour include:

  • Deliberately undermining a competent worker with constant criticism
  • Humiliating staff in front of others
  • Ridiculing or demeaning someone by picking on them or setting them up to fail
  • Overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position
  • Ignoring views and opinions
  • Withholding information which can affect a worker’s performance
  • Setting unreasonable or impossible deadlines
  • Setting unmanageable workloads
  • Spreading malicious rumors
  • Intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities

The cost of bullying

UNISON put out paper where they highlight that the human, economic, and social cost of bullying can be very high. But the main cost of bullying is to the bullied individual themselves. Those who experience bullying can feel anxious, intimidated, threatened, and humiliated. Bullying can cause feelings of frustration and anger and can lead to stress, loss of self-confidence, and self-esteem. Workers can also lose motivation affecting work performance, absence levels, and ultimately their exit. In extreme circumstances, bullying has led to self-harm and even suicide.

What organizations can do to discourage bullying

There are many contents out there talking about setting up a policy on workplace bullying and focusing on employees on what they should do when bullied. But there is very less content on what employers should do beyond having a policy in place.

Employees should not be left to tackle the bullies on their own with a policy alone. Employers first need to empower their employees through an atmosphere that is conducive to feedback and free from fear of persecution. Otherwise, the policy just becomes a redundant document circulated on annual basis, to fulfil the obligation of being seen as an employee-centric organization.

These are a few things an organization can do to improve on their approach towards bullying.

Accept it’s existence and stop turning a blind eye

The existence of an anti-bullying policy alone doesn’t make any organization free of bullies. If that was the case then the problem would have been tackled ages ago.

Two things embolden the bullies

1) The confidence that the person they are bullying will not report them

2) The inaction of the management in the absence of a complaint. This reassures them that what they are doing is completely justified.

Bullies cannot hide their actions all the time, no matter how hard they try. It will be out in the open for everyone to see, including the higher management. More often despite their behaviour being fully visible, the management fails to engage unless there is a complaint. Because the bully could be seen as a person delivering results and hence the fear of action against him.

Even though the bullies act as fearless deep inside they are cowards. Proper feedback from management can easily bring out their fear and force them to change their ways. It makes them realize that they are being watched. Such action also gives confidence to the employees being bullied that the organization cares.

Make an example out of incidents

Communicate incidents of bullying and actions taken, but without naming and shaming people. This will serve as an example for employees to understand that their employers are serious about bullying. And it’s not acceptable at the workplace. It will also deter bullies and make them mend their ways. Most of the time instead of using these incidents as an example, the organization tries to keep them hush, which in the long run can backfire on them.

Stop sending the wrong signals by promoting bullies

Employees who employ bullying tactics to deliver results should be discouraged. And first thing the organizations should do is to avoid promoting such people, as it sends the wrong signal. When an organization promotes a bully, it is like communicating that they promote such behaviour. Such actions discourages the victims from speaking up, as they get the message that it is an acceptable behaviour at the organization.

Understand that the organization can achieve the performance without the help of bullies

Organizations needs to understand that Performance can be achieved without demeaning, undermining, and humiliating people. And performance achieved without employing such tactics last longer and delivers better results than the one achieved using them. Employers and organizations should understand and acknowledge this. A bully may be delivering results, but such results are not sustainable. And it will lead to a wrong culture being developed in the long run with far-reaching repercussions. Performance achieved sustainably through mutual respect and cooperation is what organizations should promote.

Follow through on bullies and don’t just hide the problem

Employers tend to take a much lenient approach when the person reported as a bully is a performer. This leads them to tackle the issue in a way as to move the problem rather than removing it. As a result the organizations end up transferring the bully to a different department, or a different part of the organization to satisfy the complainant. But you are just shifting the problem if there is no follow-up to ensure these incidents are not repeated by the same culprit, and it ruins the life of a different set of employees.

You need to make Bullies aware of their actions, and provide them with the opportunity to change. They also need to be followed up to ensure they are not going back to their old selves in an existing or new role.

What experts has to say

Dr. Reetu Sandhu, Manager at Limeade Institute which keeps a pulse on the latest employee well-being and engagement research and trends — says work performance doesn’t have to come at the expense of mental and physical health and wellness. Dr. Sandhu insists it’s about creating a humane work environment:

“Since mental health is a core part of who we are as human beings, employers who want to care for their employees can’t ignore mental health. We also know there is a connection between work and well-being. Work can be a source of purpose, passion, and energy—or it can be a source of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. These experiences can either have positive or negative influences on our mental health. Similarly, our mental health can impact how we think, feel, and perform at work.”

Margaret Hodgins, Sarah MacCurtain, and Patricia Mannix-McNamara in their work “Power and inaction: why organizations fail to address workplace bullying” feel there is a lot that can be done.

“Bullying affects at least one-third of workers through direct exposure or indirect witness exposure, both of which lead to compromised health, and by extension, absenteeism and reduced organizational effectiveness or productivity. While one might assume that this would galvanize organizations into developing robust preventative and ameliorative practices, the converse is often the case. Organizations appear to be remarkably poor at either preventing or providing effective protection from bullying.”

Dr. Bryan Robinson a licensed psychotherapist, a journalist, and Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte shares a more optimistic view.

“The good news is that companies are starting to realize that when they allow bullying o to continue, it hurts their bottom line. Workplace performance drops. And minimizing, covering up, or turning heads the other way creates a toxic culture—compromising the company’s integrity. They have trouble recruiting and retaining the best employees, resulting in a revolving door as workers leave for a more humane workplace.”


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