Workplace Bullying vs. Schoolyard Bullying: What Do You Believe?
The other day I received an email from a target of workplace bullying. He’d been suffering for 3 years in two different workplace situations. He sought help in every way possible but no one would step in and work to end the bullying. He was in despair about ever getting any help or relief and is now on medical leave because of the trauma of the bullying. This call is like so many I receive in my work as a conflict consultant. When I take these calls, I harken back to schoolyard bullying.
The bully created terror in our hearts and controlled us by using intimidation, humiliation, verbal threats and physical attacks. The bully had groups of followers who admired the bully’s prowess. Others cowered out of fear of becoming the next victim.
Cowering was commonplace since it seemed no one from the school administration was going to step up to stop the bully’s reign of terror. Sometimes the administrators thought we targets deserved it. Sometimes they too were afraid of the bully. Oftentimes they had no rules to stop the bully, or they had no stomach to enforce the rules. Possibly the administrators knew that the bully was suffering his or her own terrors, and thus were reluctant to take action because they had empathy.
As children and as targets it was difficult to empathize with the bully and understand that the bully was actually weak, terrified, and a target himself or herself. How would this comfort us? We were suffering the slings and arrows of the bully and we wanted it to stop.
As adults it is difficult to empathize with the bully boss or colleague, even though many bullies suffer the same fears and terrors as their schoolyard counterparts. Yet again we are suffering the consequences of bully behavior and we want it to stop.
But, is Schoolyard Bullying the Same as Workplace Bullying?
No. Though there are surface similarities, there are specific differences between schoolyard bullying and workplace bullying that must be considered when trying to understand the problems of workplace bullying. When we think they are the same thing, we make four mistaken assumptions that prevent us from really seeing the problem clearly and taking the appropriate steps.
- We fail to realize the stakes are higher. Workplace bullying impacts careers and incomes, not just lunch money or bragging rights. Failing to recognize that the problem is serious stops us from thinking we need help.
- We assume help is coming. Unfortunately, that expectation is not aligned with reality. We assume that administrators WILL respond appropriately because workplace bullying has financial consequences. As adults we are unprepared. We operate on shared mistaken assumptions about collegiality and community. In school we don’t expect our teachers or administrators to help us.
- We trust the culture of the organization. If the organizational culture portrays itself as one of harmony but bullying behavior is allowed to persist, we become confused by the discrepancy and blame ourselves for the problem. In school we don’t think about the culture of the school. We live in the present moment and deal with the problem as best we can.
- We pretend it’s not serious. Often, we as targets do not even recognize threatening and intimidating behavior as bullying until someone identifies it for us. This sets us up to endure the behavior far longer than we should, and after considerable damage has already been inflicted by the bully. In school we know we are suffering and we know exactly why.
Bullying: What are Your Assumptions?
The caller I mentioned at the beginning of this blog was operating under all of these false assumptions when he tried to fight back against the workplace bullying. He failed, because none of his assumptions were true. Kids in school KNOW that there’s no help for them. Adults believe that there is help for them, even when none is coming. Why is that? What can we do to help employers support targets? And, what can we do to help targets to take care of themselves differently?
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I’ve been 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.
I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.