Is Bullying Still Bullying When It’s Unintentional?

By Heather Campbell

“I can’t believe I’ve been bullied out of my local swimming pool!”

My friend was laughing as she said it, but underneath the humour she had a serious point.

Anne is a keen swimmer and she trains regularly – but recently, not at her nearest pool. Why?

Because a group of swimmers began to run informal swim training sessions in the ‘fast’ lanes at her local pool.

“We’re a friendly bunch,” they told Anne, “and you’re welcome to join our sessions – but you can’t swim in this lane if you don’t.”

Infuriated the first time this happened, Anne complained to the centre manager.

“You’re not the first to complain,” she was told. “If it happens again, speak to the lifeguards. This is a public pool and we can’t have this group taking over.”

The second time it happened, Anne spoke to the lifeguards.

“We know,” they said, “and we’ve asked them not to do it, but they don’t listen. And management aren’t that interested. There’s nothing we can do.”

So nothing changed, and Anne started swimming at another pool.

And she’s even met several others there who have moved pools for the very same reason.

As an outsider, this seems crazy. How can articulate, competent adults find themselves in this situation?

Sadly, it’s far more common than we might want to admit, and often with far more serious consequences.

I’m not talking about leisure centre bullying here – I’m talking about workplace bullying.

Bullying in the workplace is one of the last taboo topics at work and it’s one that we need to talk about, because it’s costing organisations and individuals dearly.

But what do I really mean by bullying?

Well, too often, it’s still considered the domain of the individual ‘bad apple’ who selects a victim and makes their life hell.

Yes, this type of bullying exists. And, in many ways, this is the easiest type of bullying to pinpoint and deal with (that’s easiest – still not easy!!). But it’s the tip of the iceberg.

At CommsMasters we see a whole range of different types of bullying when we’re working with organisations in areas such as underperformance, conflict in teams and poor engagement.

Through our work in these areas we’ve come across surprising and unexplored ways in which bullying is taking place.

Here are just a few anecdotal examples:

Group-led, upwards bullying

A middle manager being undermined by his team – “If I tell one team member I’m not happy with something, the whole team downs tools and I can’t get the job done. I’ve learned to just work around it.”

‘Problem-solving’ bullying

A senior manager seeking a way to get an underperforming direct report to leave the organisation (or at least leave his team) – “It’ll take too long to do this through formal [performance management] processes, so I’m just going to make life a bit tough for him. Things like arranging meetings early in the morning so he has to stay away overnight. He hates that. He’ll soon move on.”

‘Grandfather’ bullying

A senior leader being pushed by his boss – one of the directors in the organisation – to dismiss a manager who reported to the senior leader. The senior leader was happy with the individual’s performance, but felt under undue pressure to meet his director’s expectations.

‘Positive mental attitude’ bullying

A director who was frustrated because her senior management team highlighted problems with a systems change that was being implemented across their division. “I want positive people who tell me what can be done, not what can’t be done,” she told her team.

Her team had genuine concerns about the new system but gave up raising them.

“Now we’re scared to raise the problems we know are coming because we’re seen as barriers to change,” said one team member, “and at the same time we’re scared by just what a mess we’re going to have to fix. We can’t win.”

In working with these individuals and teams, no one thought that bullying was taking place. In fact, they would’ve been horrified to have heard such a word used about their situation.

We certainly found that no one was intentionally bullying. But nonetheless, their actions had much the same impact, no matter their intention.

People were being manipulated into making decisions they didn’t want to make, taking actions they didn’t want to take, and were left feeling powerless in situations where they needed to have power.

But is bullying still bullying when it’s unintentional?

And does it really matter?

In our experience, the answer to both of these questions is yes.

In my next blog I’ll explore just how damaging even unintentional bullying can be.

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