Bullying for love...


Once upon a time I worked for a company who released an HR policy on bullying. Part of that policy claimed that bullying was in the "eye of the beholder" - i.e. if you felt it was bullying, it was. 

My reaction at the was one of slight incredulity - how on Earth could such a thing either be provable or enforceable. Policies without teeth are surely pointless?

Many years on I actually see the point and I actually disagree with my former self. Perhaps I'm older and wiser and understand human nature a bit better.

Perhaps I thought that bullying was always something physical. Perhaps I thought it had to involve coercion. Perhaps I thought that the bully always got their own way. I don't believe any of that now. 

For starters, bullying is most definitely in the eye of the beholder: different people respond differently to being subjected to the same behaviours. 

The confident employee who is pal-y with the boss may take jibes, swearing, back-slapping, throwing of objects (lightheartedly or otherwise) and unreasonable demands with a pinch of salt. A less-confident employee may, on the other hand, take such things very much more personally. It might affect their work and their ability to feel open. It might further harm their confidence. It might make them start to fear engaging with their boss. If it gets to that point, then actually whether you label it "bullying" or not, it's a problem - it's "inappropriate behaviour".

Which begs the question - what is bullying? 

Is it physical? is it coercive? Is it about someone else getting their own way?

It can be all of things, but it doesn't have to be. 

For example, inaction can be as damaging as action. Blanking or ignoring someone can be damaging and controlling. Busting a gut to produce a great piece of work, only to be met with silence and blankness can obviously be hurtful. If this is directed discriminately at specific individuals or is part of an ongoing pattern, even more devasting. This type of behaviour is sending psychological signals to an individual - controlling them in a subtle way - in my book, bullying.

The same is true of an explosive temper. (Interesting word "temper", also meaning "make more temperate, acceptable, or suitable by adding something else; moderate; "she tempered her criticism")  Of course all humans have in in-built anger mechanism and have times when this needs to be released. What we try to do is ensure that in the workplace, at least, this is - if you pardon the pun - tempered. If it is not, then it can create a culture of fear. If employees' actions or mistakes are met with colleagues' explosive rage then, again, this is essentially a psycholigical tactic to control another employee's actions - whether or not that tactic is done consciously or unconsciously, spontaneously or in a considered way.

Probably most people agree that rage and anger and temper and other 'destructive' emotions certainly have the potential to cross that line in the sand that separates "enthusastic personality" and "someone who gets things done" from "bully" and "tyrant"; and different people will draw different lines. But the conundrum for me is that I also think bullying can be done in a spirit of generousity and love. Yes, really.

I argue that any kind of controlling behaviour is a form of bullying. It doesn't matter what the motivation for that behaviour is - when one person tries to systematically control the actions or desires of another, it's bullying.

You see this sometimes happen in families. Take, for example, the person who always insists on paying for meals out. Always. On the surface it's an act of kindness and generousity. But what this behaviour does is deny anyone else the same privilege. It denies anyone else the same expression of kindness or generousity towards their family. IT DENIES ANYONE ELSE THE SAME. 

It turns out then, that this behaviour, when performed relentlessly, is selfish - even though it is driven by generous motives. Now that's wierd. 

That's why bullying IS in the eye of the beholder - because it's about the EFFECT of behaviours. It has less to do with an absolute value judgement of the behaviour of the bully, and whether their actions are well-intended and apparently harmless.  

Well - food for thought (am I'm not paying).