Neuroscience shows that, in certain instances, the brain interprets the impact of being devalued, ignored, shamed, yelled at, rejected, or bullied at work in ways that are similar to the experience of physical pain.
Most of my conflict work involves workplace conflict, and recent years have certainly seen an increased awareness of the prevalence, risks and harm involved in mismanaging workplace bullying. When modern workplace bullying is properly understood the case for eradicating, or at least minimizing such events in the workplace, really becomes rather self-evident. The modern employer ignores or underestimates workplace bullying and its remedies at their peril.
But this increased awareness has paradoxically not led to an increase in efficiency in combating this toxic form of workplace conflict, either as seen from the employer’s or the employee’s perspective. Sophisticated legislation and workplace codes are either not fully integrated, they are poorly managed of begrudgingly “allowed” to co-exist with other outdated forms of workplace disciplinary processes and methods, and the problem remains relatively central in most modern workplaces, here in South Africa and globally. We notice that awareness of the extent of the problem, and even its potential solutions, do not necessarily translate into resolution.
While accurate statistics involving workplace bullying is often hard to obtain, due to a variety of reasons, we find for example that in 2017 some 60, 3 million Americans reported that they have been affected by workplace bullying. In South Africa workplace bullying, whether institutionalized or individualized, whether directed at a person or group, is remarkably prevalent, and it is of course both borne from our unresolved past conflicts as well as further causing and perpetuating adverse current and future workplace conflict outcomes. This, as well as specific dynamics involving gender, race and other forms of intimidation and prejudice manifesting as workplace bullying, must be borne in mind and effectively made a part of management strategies.
There are several systemic and structural reasons for this phenomenon of ongoing workplace bullying. Modern workplaces often continue to see workplace conflict as a function of “HR”, to be dealt with reactively and as a carrot and stick system of damage control, to be budgeted for and outsourced where necessary. Systems and processes that are measurably outdated and harmful continue to be the default operating systems in most workplaces, with the occasional cosmetic and ineffective upgrade or redrafting of superficial solutions that get forgotten a week after the next workshop. Workplace conflict symptoms are dealt with in ubiquitous and cyclical spirals without the real causes thereof ever efficiently being understood or addressed.
In this article I then briefly deal with three categories of potential solutions, variously available to management, unions or employees.
Category 1 solutions: cleaning our lenses
As important as this first category is, it is also a rather tongue-in-cheek reminder for all involved, but in this case more so the employees involved, to keep a healthy and fresh perspective on workplace bullying. Not every instruction or work assignment (maybe delivered in a hurried or gruff manner) is workplace bullying. Not every manager or colleague that wants you to deliver your best performance is a “bully” or a “narcissist”. Social media and generational clashes of perceptions around work ethics have created a confused blur of concepts and terms that confound and exacerbate many a relatively simple workplace conflict at its commencement, and the concept of workplace bullying is one of them.
Excellence, peak performance and deadlines remain inherently a part of the modern workplace, and these dynamics often do not conform to our modern sensitivities. In my work I often deal with a complete disagreement between parties on what workplace bullying actually is, and very often the complained of conduct is not an instance of bullying. In this category then we can make important progress by simply asking employees to be careful in what they regard as workplace bullying, and to draw a fair and reasonable line between necessary workplace pressure (in all its manifestations and as appropriate to that specific industry) and actual workplace bullying. From the employer we can here request an increased and upgraded level of training of middle and senior management in effective communication and efficient leadership skills.
Category 2 solutions: hammers
Real instances of workplace bullying can harm the physical and emotional lives of the victims, it can destroy or hamper careers, create or exacerbate mental health issues and it has a plethora of real and measurable workplace adverse outcomes, ranging from poor team or individual performance, underperforming, high staff turnover, conflict avoidance or rigidity, increased risk of litigation, resentment, toxic workplace environments or silo forming and so on. Sometimes the best way to manage or resolve such an instance or series of workplace conflict is to take out the big hammers that we will briefly discuss here.
While the use of these workplace conflict solutions more often than not bring about tremendous increases in delays, risk and costs, and it nearly by definition means the end of any chance of a constructive continuation of that working relationship, it should be conceded that there are occasions where they are, or become, the best and most appropriate solution to an ongoing workplace conflict such as one marked by bullying behaviour. Management or individual victims of bullying are under no obligation to consider policies of appeasement or compromise with such conduct or its perpetrators.
In this category we can mention, as examples, the use of the new Workplace Harassment Code (in place in South Africa since 2022), any existent internal company code (where it exists), internal complaints to HR or management, referral of the conduct to dispute resolution forums such as the CCMA, or in extreme cases, of course, litigation (civil and/or criminal as the facts dictate), an option which, depending on the facts of the events, would be available against the offending employee and/or the employer itself. The use of these processes in practice often spell out the end of the working relationship, often even for the victim, and given the adversarial nature of such processes they often leave the parties unable or unwilling to continue. As such they should be regarded as legitimate solutions, but as remedies of last resort, and where some sense of justice and compensation overrides considerations of salvaging the ongoing working relationship.
Category 3 solutions: scalpels
It is in this, the third category, where we use the nuanced and skilful means of the strategies and techniques handed to us by modern conflict management, where we need to do harder and more complex work, but where the promise of real and lasting resolution in these ongoing relationships become possible. Here we can draw a sharper distinction between the strategies available to management and those that can be applied by the victims of workplace bullying.
As even a cursory glance at some of my earlier work will show, this is a complex question that requires some structural changes for management. The results are however measurable and self-evidently superior solutions as opposed to the more traditional approaches, risks and outcomes. A small investment in time, training and costs here rewards management with measurable and fully transferable tools to not just combat the negative consequences of these workplace conflicts, but to derive actual positive results and outcomes from such engagements.
A few summarized examples will establish the work that can be done and the positive results that are available.
1. Management should make the adjustment to see all workplace disputes, both the causes and the results thereof, as instances of human conflict. Approaching the symptoms of these events through the conventional lenses of HR functions, litigation, risk management and so on locks the company into spirals of conflict that cannot be broken. This leads to a tremendous wastage of time, money and productivity. With minimal but focused recalibration involved where selected management members, including senior HR personnel, should be coached to understand the causes and drivers of these events: human conflict. A comprehensive and modern understanding of these events in all of its manifestations, from poor discipline, poor performance, misconduct, absenteeism and workplace bullying, hands management efficient tools to deal with such workplace conflict and to start dealing with such conflict not as an exercise in avoiding or limiting damage, but in managing, resolving and even transforming such conflict, with measurable positive results for all involved.
2. Together with such recalibration should come the understanding that management need not, and should not, compromise on its own legitimate standards and goals. Compromise in workplace conflicts, including workplace bullying, is as unnecessary as it is harmful. Effective workplace conflict management shies away from compromise for its own sake, and accepts the challenge to create modern conflict solutions that are not just defensive, reactive damage limitation strategies. Doing this the right way has nothing to do with being soft on discipline, or losing any part of the control required by management.
3. Workplace bullying can be difficult to detect, for a variety of reasons, and a quick walk down the passages or a workplace survey can spectacularly underestimate or completely miss the early warning signs or actual manifestations of such events. Workplace cultures that exist far from boardroom assessments of conditions on the ground can make this more complex, and as a few recent and very public examples of poorly managed workplace bullying events show us, this can have disastrous consequences as far as brand management and litigation outcomes are concerned. Effectively upgrading your organization’s conflict management competencies will measurably reduce risks and improve outcomes. Full integration of these principles into your existing disciplinary and conflict systems, an initial measure of coaching of selected team members and a small team of external consultants for very limited complex conflict management and ongoing training is the effective framework that management needs to bring these benefits to their business and its employees.
Employee / interpersonal strategies
In addition to the strategies in the categories we discussed above, an employee victim of workplace bullying can also make use of a few interpersonal strategies in order to resolve or transform the incidents of workplace bullying that are actual instances of bullying and that may be persisting. Isolated incidents falling short of a pattern or recurring cyclical incidents are often best ignored. Given the ongoing nature of the employment relationship, the best strategy in dealing with workplace bullying is most often to resolve and transform such conduct.
This does not mean avoiding that conflict, or making unhealthy compromises that only lead to resentment and later reoccurrences of that very behaviour. The effective resolution of these workplace bullying events are often difficult to accept and to achieve, but upon calm reflection certainly the better option as opposed to an enforced resignation, litigation or harming one’s career prospects. Simply enduring workplace bullying events often also ironically end up with management simply regarding all involved as part of the problem, with often predictable negative outcomes.
One of the reactions of victims of workplace bullying that I often deal with is a sense of unfairness experienced by these employees. They experience the negative, often career threatening effects of these events and they quite rightly expect management to resolve this effectively and speedily. They are of course completely justified in these expectations, even though this is so often frustrated or ignored in real world workplace conflicts. In practice we often see an unfortunate and harmful combination of an unwillingness or inability by management to deal with such behaviour, or the use of outdated processes (often managed by untrained staff) to quickly hammer the complained conduct back into shape.
Symptoms are assessed and dealt with, while the causes and drivers of these bullying behaviours remain unresolved, only to return later to everyone’s prejudice. As unfair as this may be, and sound, the South African employee is often best advised to accept personal responsibility for the resolution of such workplace bullying conduct, at least up to a level where some of the remedies we mentioned earlier become inevitable or appropriate. This may include working on a relationship with someone that you would prefer to see dismissed. This requires a very complex and emotionally difficult assessing of the conflict at hand, and the careful weighing up of all available options and probabilities.
Every workplace bullying problem is of course dependent on its own industry specific rules and dynamics, the interplay of the personalities involved, the sophistication (or lack thereof) of the applicable internal systems and codes available, workplace cultures, power structures and a complex range of other interlinked factors, and each such conflict should be assessed and dealt with respecting and implementing such dynamics.
A few general principles and techniques can however be considered:
(1) Do some work on yourself before you start dealing with the workplace bully. Make sure that this is in fact bullying, assess whether it is worthwhile to address the situation, and then set some mental and emotional boundaries for yourself (“I will not be insulted like that” or “I will now longer be bullied into doing his work for him”). This serves as important early warning systems and reminders when things get more heated and personal later on. Get to a level of personal comfort in what you will be doing and when you will be seeking help from management or colleagues. Make sure that you do not endanger yourself physically. Mentally run through a few of the upcoming conversations that you anticipate, try to become more comfortable with the unpleasantness and why it may be necessary.
(2) Take a hard look at the behaviour that you regard as bullying. In South Africa we often deal with cultural or generational differences that are perceived as bullying behaviour (loud and aggressive tone of voice, proxemics and misunderstood body language, differences in work ethics and so on, and a calm assessment or non-judgmental discussion with the real or perceived perpetrator can often clear the air and prevent further escalation of the conflict. A simple, polite and private question such as “Do you intend to upset me when you come running into my office with instructions, or is that just how you work?” This highlights the problem and gives the perpetrator an opportunity to explain or amend that behaviour without losing face. This is best done very early on in the conflict.
(3) Bullying is often a coping mechanism for people who are under their own stress and emotional upheaval. Workplace bullies are often unaware of the toxicity of their behaviour, and their own histories, upbringing, training or the company culture may have conditioned them into behavioural patterns that are, or are perceived as bullying. They may regard their conduct as “assertive” or “efficient” or what is required of a good manager in their position. This can often be defused, again if dealt with relatively early on in the conflict. Try to find ways where you can help the bully operationally, which may decrease some of that pressure, leading to less of a need for such bullying. This is a simple strategy where helping the bully helps you.
(4) The workplace bully is often a coward. This means that you need not bother with changing their behaviour, you simply need to become less of an attractive target. Set those boundaries, calmly and with the necessary workplace decorum, make the consequences of transgressions known, and then stick to this firmly and consistently. Teach the bully that actions have consequences, and that there may be easier targets elsewhere.
(5) If the bullying has reached an advanced stage, you may be compromising too much, sending mixed signals as to your boundaries or the consequences of transgressions thereof, and a calm (try to never lose your composure with a bully, it is often the fuel and reward of future bullying) but firm labelling of their conduct can be helpful towards resolution. Make it clear that you perceive the specific offending behaviour as bullying, making very clear the behaviour and the word “bullying”. No need to be polite at a late stage. Naming (labelling) the offending behaviour is a necessary tactic if there is to be resolution.
(6) Remember that large sections of South African society operate in, or from, an honour society conflict model, where resolving or transcending the conflict may be acceptable as long as the method you got there is perceived as acceptable. Practically speaking this means that you need to find a way to have a conversation with the bully that calls out the behaviour, how unacceptable it is, possible consequences and a constructive alternative, all done in a way where the bully does not feel humiliated or dominated. Again this may feel unfair, but the question is still whether you want revenge or be effective in resolving a serious workplace problem.
(7) Understand the bully’s strategies and behaviour. The primary strategy of the bully is to intimidate and to then watch reactions to such conduct. This is often accompanied by extensive efforts at trying to convince you that they do not care what you or other people may think of them or their behaviour. This is not borne out by case studies and practice, and most workplace bullies are very much concerned about their reputations and how they are perceived. This is often why real or perceived challenges to their authority or knowledge trigger bullying responses. This leads us again to a potentially uncomfortable realization given the ongoing nature of the working relationship: it may be better to have a good or tolerable working relationship with the bully. This will often negate the bullying behaviour in itself. Again, this does not require or deserve appeasement or compromise, but a level of connection with the bully is often a far more effective strategy in a workplace than ongoing escalation through confrontation. This could be achieved by the occasional compliment, recognition of their status or achievements. Avoid unnecessary power struggles if operational requirements allow this.
(8) Identify their triggers and avoid these. Deadlines, questioning, dissent often act as these triggers, and harmful reaction patterns such as escalation of confrontation or a reluctance to speak out follow, all to the prejudice of the involved individuals, team and the company itself. A brief study of the bully’s triggers can in itself show you a few solutions to the problem. Here the manner in which operational questions are asked, or their timing, can in themselves bring about improvement.
Workplace bullying, where it exists, is an awful, toxic blight on any workplace landscape. No one should have to endure it for extended periods of time. As the categories we briefly looked at show, the decision(s) on what the correct timing and sequence of the various strategies are is a complex challenge, one with important consequences. Of course, mixed in to that complex set of choices we have to consider the possibility of such extended behaviour being best dealt with by resigning. Most of these solutions often feel unfair in themselves. Why must I now go through all of this if I am the victim? Such are the realities of workplace conflict, and as unpalatable as the process may be, these decisions must be made.
As we can also see quite clearly, this is ultimately management’s responsibility, dealt with through modern and effective internal coaching and training, having effective systems and processes in place, and monitoring and enforcing anti-bullying projects. In practice, this is of course not always the case, and employees are left to navigate these dangerous waters themselves. At times workplace power silos, polarization and ineffective and outdated workplace policies tie management’s hands even if they are aware of the problem and want to help. This sets off secondary conflicts and outcomes, often borne by the victims of the bullying. Hopefully these examples will show workplace bullying victims that they do have a voice, that there is help for their problem, and hopefully management will have a better understanding of their crucial role in dealing with these specialized conflicts.
Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading
1. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022), especially Chapter 14.
2. Various relevant articles on our blog www.conflict-conversations.co.za
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)
Andre Vlok September 2023