Observing Workplace Abrasive and Bullying Behaviors: Six Action Steps You Can Take

Observing Workplace Abrasive and Bullying Behaviors: Six Action Steps you Can Take

Are you witnessing bully and abrasive behaviors at work? If so, you are at risk for health related consequences including stress, depression, and physical illness. In a recent article based on substantive research in Finland, it is clear that both targets and observers are suffering.


  • Observing makes us feel powerless and afraid. We don’t know what to do or say and we wonder if we will be next. This causes stress and frustration, which makes us ill.
  • Observing also challenges our core values. We think: If we are offended by the bullying or abrasive behavior, then why aren’t we standing up for our friends and colleagues? Why aren’t we reporting the issues to upper management?
  • Explanations for our failure to act are true but they create inner conflict. We look for explanations—family, finances, career path. They are all good ones but they don’t really help us with the essential conflict: We think: “If we were good, then we would help. Therefore if we are not helping, we must not be good.” This thinking causes shame, stress and frustration, which makes us ill.

These are three common explanations I hear from those who witness bullying type behaviors at work: fear, inner conflict, shameful justifications.

From Observing to Action

It’s so so painful to be in the role of observer. If this is your situation, what can you do to help?

  1. Are you willing to be a witness if the target decides to report the problem?
  2. Are you willing to co-document incidences?
  3. Are you willing to validate the experiences of the target so she or he knows the problems are real?
  4. Are you willing to refer the target to counseling or specialized coaching so that they can cope?
  5. Are you willing to get help for yourself to learn your boundaries, options, and opportunities?
  6. How about suggesting programs, training, and coaching? Perhaps sending relevant websites to sympathetic folks who have the power and authority to take action, but need help getting to the right advisors?

Taking the first action step might feel uncomfortable and scary. But this feeling is temporary, and isn’t it much better than the chronic fear, inner conflict and shameful justifications that come from observing the behavior on a daily basis? If you were the target of such behavior, wouldn’t you appreciate a co-worker that shifted from observing to acting on your behalf?

In any case, the pain of inaction is documented so at least you know.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts. You can contact me here.

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