Adult-to-adult bullying continues to be a problem in the workplace, despite provincial legislation that requires employers to adopt policies to curb it from happening on the job, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.
Stephen Quinn: We seem to be good at telling kids to stop bullying. Why is it still a factor in the workplace?
Jennifer Newman: Just as in the school yard, those in authority roles have to lead the way. That means setting a tone of civility and respect, and intervening when uncivil, disrespectful or harmful behaviour is occurring. So, it's up to leaders, managers and supervisors to insist on appropriate workplace behaviour. If they find it difficult to do so, bullying can quickly take hold in an organization.
You seem to be laying it squarely at the feet of leadership. Is that fair?
Leaders, or managers who are willing to take a zero-harm approach will get results. It's not a punitive, stamp out bullying' message. Rather, it's about recognizing no one comes to work expecting to get hurt psychologically. Also, bullying bullies doesn't work. Looking at it from a safety and health point of view is really important. Managers who promote healthy and safe workplace behaviour do best. They let workers know what unhealthy and unsafe behaviour looks like too.
What is unhealthy and unsafe workplace behaviour?
You can place it on a continuum, spanning from incivility, all the way to physical assault. It's a progressive escalation in inappropriate behaviour. If a manager lets incivility go, it can morph into disrespect. So, not saying thank you, not being polite may seem minor. And, as a one off, it is. But then letting rudeness, passive aggressiveness, gruff angry responses go, time after time, can contribute to an escalation.
How does bullying differ from disrespect? What's the difference?
Bullying is behaviour known to be — or should be known to be — humiliating or intimidating. Disrespectful behaviour can be humiliating and intimidating, but it can be a function of being rude or abrasive. Bullying is a more focussed behaviour. The worker on the receiving end feels targeted, whereas disrespectful behaviour can be exhibited by a colleague who thinks being blunt is honesty, or thinks their brand of sarcasm is funny.
There can be an element of social awkwardness or difficulty reading social cues, in a disrespectful situation. Bullying has more intentionality attached to it.
You mentioned things can escalate, to harassment and even physical violence. How does it get to that point?
That is pretty rare. But one of the ways to understand violence is not just somebody attacking somebody, but throwing things.
If incivility or disrespect is left unchecked, it can escalate to worse behaviour. That's because the workplace acclimatizes to new norms all the time. For example, if it's okay to sit at a meeting texting, emailing and repeatedly coming in and out to take phone calls, others may join in. But listening when others are talking is a civil thing to do.
Also, over time, it may seem to become okay to sigh loudly and yawn when you are bored. Maybe it gets a laugh. Or, it's okay to mutter passive aggressively under your breath. Then, it becomes normal to have sidebar conversations. Later on, maybe a worker does not like what they hear, so they register it with an f-bomb and tell the person they are stupid in front of others.
So you can see how this behaviour can build on itself, and that's where it becomes an issue.
How can managers intervene early enough so the bad behavior doesn't escalate?
Talk about the healthy and safe behaviour you are looking for. The same concept works on the flip side: positive behaviour can engender more positive behaviour, and civility can lead to respectful interactions and constructive debate. Respect at work can encourage collaboration, which in turns leads to caring about colleague's welfare. The end result is kindness.
This interview has been edited and condensed
To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says bullying is continuing to persist in the workplace