Tackling Bullying with Benevolence
12 February 2021 | Sarah Price, Nurse, Practice Educator and Examiner
In an ideal world, bullying should be experienced rarely if ever, but research shows that it occurs with alarming frequency.
It is generally expected that we will behave kindly towards others, but bullies appear to have different values and a different sense of wrongness. Repeated bullying indicates they are not sorry or may even enjoy the ill effects they’re causing. It takes huge courage to blow the whistle when someone is being bullied due to the fear of backlash, but bullying can make a victim’s life unbearable.
Recognition of workplace bullying has increased and people affected by it should feel confident to report bullying to someone trustworthy. In a well-run organisation the victim(s) will be protected from any consequences of whistle blowing and an action plan will be formulated. The intention is to understand the full picture when someone is bullied so the incident is resolved with closure for the victim and appropriate measures to ensure that the bully does not re-offend.
Asking for Help
It is rare for bullying at work to be reported, out of a sense of fear or even loyalty, but if we don’t protect ourselves and speak up, feelings can build up and lead to an outburst. After this it can be very difficult to regain a comfortable workplace position. Even if in the short term speaking out causes discomfort it is worth it in the long term; taking a leap of faith and asking for help is vital.
There is nearly always an element of competition in the workplace and feelings can be prickly, but the dangerous colleague is the person who is impelled to bully and who also has a pivotal role in the team. This protagonist doesn’t have the self-awareness to know why they act the way they do and the team lives in fear of them. If a bully has a long term pattern of this behaviour it will be almost impossible to establish a basis to speak to them and help them see their behaviour is wrong. If you do your best to connect in a positive way with a bully, and they resist, do not try to persuade them to change; it is at this point you need formal support.
If you are being bullied, choose carefully when selecting someone to speak to about it. The person you turn to must understand the need for confidentiality and that their position is a safe haven for you. Bullying can feel like continual torment, therefore your support person needs to be serious in their commitment to you and have the time to be there for you. At work, your manager would naturally be the first person to approach, but if they are the bully you should turn to a more senior manager; significantly it must be someone you can trust. Bullying can become contagious, and the bully may pull others into their mind-set with gossip and comments.
It is generally expected that we will behave kindly towards others, but bullies appear to have different values and a different sense of wrongness.Sarah Price
Resolving an Accusation of Bullying
As an Educator I am asked to step in and resolve situations when a victim of bullying needs support because they are not coping. When I am asked to investigate and help that person I follow strong ethical principles and a clear process; interviews are held with both victim and bully separately. The process must be clear and unbiased, to be fair to both individuals. Misunderstandings can happen, for example when perceptions differ due to the victim’s opinion about the inferential attitude of the bully towards them, or when someone may claim they are being bullied but the claim is based on resentment of that person and a historic grievance. To maintain fairness, both individuals should be interviewed accompanied by someone neutral; both interviews must be completed before deciding on next steps.
Firstly the person who says they are being bullied should be spoken to in a private setting. By active listening and gentle questioning the detailed facts can be established and evidence collected. It is helpful if the victim has preserved evidence about what form of bullying has taken place and they are ready to give examples of when it happened and how they felt. These stories can reveal jealousies and how the bully may see the victim as a threat to their career progression within a hierarchical structure. The resultant health related issues for the victim can be as serious as suicidal thoughts, whether they were demeaned as a one-off occurrence or when there is a pattern of bullying. Strong personal and professional support must be put in place for them, particularly if their mental health has suffered.
This should be followed by an interview with the person who is being accused. Careful preparation is needed if they have been accused of harbouring bad intentions and causing hurt. Are they conscious of the reasons they behaved badly? The aim is to strike the right balance in this difficult conversation, with no threats to this person’s identity, i.e. how they see themselves. The accused person may respond in an affronted way when you try to get them to see they have bullied someone. Using manipulation, putting forward an opposing view, professing their innocence and feeling wounded by the accusation, they may try to ‘flip’ the conversation. Despite their protestations it’s important not to get derailed and to keep an even tone in your voice as you establish the facts.
Bullies may not be conscious they’ve done something wrong and their attitude when challenged can be defensive – why am I wrong? When someone has that mind-set, question what the bully’s purpose is. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may help. Combined with a psychodynamic approach, the bully may gain an insight into their unconscious thoughts and get a reality check about how harsh they have been. This process can be effective in teaching a bully to develop a new insight into their unkind behaviour and can achieve positive outcomes.
If you have felt bullied, either tell someone what has happened so that you have support, or gain power over the situation by the way you react to the bully. You will feel in more control if you can ignore a bully’s words and behaviour. Pause, stand back and think about what the bully is doing. However angry we feel about the bully, have an open mind about the reasons for their behaviour. This strength may seem hard to muster at the time but there is always a reason bullies act in the way they do; those who bully may need help themselves. Try and see things from both sides.
We owe it to each other to behave in a certain way and to feel safe together; and our own happiness and well-being is what guides us when we react to certain behaviours. Those who are affected by bullying should always ask for help. We need to reconcile our feelings of why someone would bully us, be confident of own emotional intelligence and speak out. Be brave, or get an advocate to speak out on your behalf. The support of others will add strength and can make the difference between a lives altering for the better, not continuing in misery.
Sources of Support
The QNI offers a confidential listening service, Talk to Us, for all nurses working in the community, primary and social care, who want to talk about any issue in their work or home life. Visit it here.
Other sources of support include:
- The free confidential 24/7 text messaging support service: https://giveusashout.org/get-help/
- Freedom to Speak Guardians https://www.nationalguardian.org.uk/information-on-speaking-up/
- RCN or other Union support https://www.rcn.org.uk/get-help/rcn-advice/bullying-and-harassment
- Your employer’s HR department.