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Like a ‘cancer’ of the workplace, bullying is a symptom of dysfunction

Workplaces should try to eliminate situations where bullying can occur, rather than put responsibility on workers to behave nicely. www.shutterstock.com

Like a ‘cancer’ of the workplace, bullying is a symptom of dysfunction

Workplaces should try to eliminate situations where bullying can occur, rather than put responsibility on workers to behave nicely. www.shutterstock.com

Over a decade ago now, I read a research article that called bullying the “cancer” of the workplace. I’ve been wondering since then whether bullying is really serious enough to warrant that language - and what can be done about it.

There are some similarities: like cancer, being exposed to relentless bullying can have a devastating impact on workers’ lives, in rare cases contributing to death through suicide. Like cancer, bullying will affect a majority of employees during their working lives, as a victim, witness, or perhaps as the alleged bully. And like cancer, there is no silver bullet to cure bullying; it’s a very difficult issue to tackle.

But during the ten years I’ve spent researching this topic, I’ve come to understand one fundamental point of difference: unlike cancer, bullying is not the disease. Rather, it’s a symptom of poor organisational functioning.

Wrong direction

To prevent bullying, organisations typically ask employees to complete bullying awareness training and comply with the company policy that emphasises zero tolerance. But this approach treats bullying behaviour as the problem that needs fixing.

The responsibility is put on workers to behave nicely towards each other (if only it were that simple) rather than on getting rid of things in the work situation that allow bullying to occur in the first place.

Treating the symptom (focusing on the bullying behaviour itself) will not stop the underlying malaise. To prevent bullying, managers need to ensure the organisation is functioning at full health in a few key areas; the balance of evidence clearly shows organisational factors rather than individual personality traits are the main potential causes.

Workplace issues, such as having unclear roles and duties, facing conflicting demands and dealing with “red tape”, are consistently linked with employees’ experiences of bullying. On the flip side, having a greater say over when and how the work is done is related to lower levels of bullying.

My own research suggests bullying can be triggered by competition for resources, such as funding, equipment and staff.

From a practical point-of-view, though, it’s unclear what managers should do with this information. What does it actually look like to have “greater say over the work” or “fewer conflicting demands”? Is it realistic to expect companies to provide workers with more resources?

The right KPI

A recent – as yet unpublished – study by me and my colleagues of real-life workplace bullying complaints helps answer these questions. It provides the detailed information needed to design bullying prevention strategies that target the underlying illness, rather than the symptoms.

We found that in around 90% of complaints the bullying episodes involved tension between managers and workers. Problems most commonly reflected aspects of the daily supervision process: when supervisors communicate with employees to clarify tasks and roles; manage performance (especially under-performance); or carry out human resource management functions connected to pay, leave, rostering and other entitlements.

Most bullying complaints involve aspects of management and supervision. www.shutterstock.com

These areas are clearly the functional risk contexts for bullying, and they offer the ideal chance to reduce bullying at work because they can be modified before bad behaviour occurs. The key is to guide managers to change their behaviour towards workers when undertaking tasks related to the supervisory process. If managers can behave more fairly and supportively across these areas, workers should feel less bullied.

In particular, supervisors should be supported to improve their people management and communication skills. This area is overlooked in many organisations, where people may be promoted based on their operational skills and experience rather than on how good they are at managing others.

And supervisors should be helped to develop their ability to manage employee performance, without causing extra stress. Specific strategies here might include ensuring that job descriptions genuinely match the expectations of the role; applying fair and consistent human resource practices; and adopting fair and transparent processes to manage under-performance.

What happens in organisations is mainly influenced by goals such as productivity, profits and public image. Faced with pressure to meet these objectives, what hope is there to maintain healthy organisational functioning and prevent undesirable consequences, such as bullying?

I suggest senior managers should set organisational goals for maintaining low levels of bullying and stress, and high-quality employee relationships. Doing this, along with changing supervisor behaviour in bullying risk contexts, could mean we might just be able to conquer the cancer of the workplace.


Michelle will be one hand for an Author Q&A between 2:30 and 3:30pm AEST on Friday, September 4. Post your questions in the comments section below.