Frontline Supervisor: Bullying in the Workplace

Frontline Supervisor: Bullying in the Workplace

On 31 Aug 2016, in Management, Workplace bullying, Workplace

Each month, "The Balance Sheet" provides questions and answers from experts on a topic that's important to you as a manager. Please feel free to share this information with other colleagues who also manage people. 

Q. Why is it important for supervisors to understand bullying, what it looks like and how it impacts the workplace?

A. Workplace bullying harms employee health and reduces productivity. Unfortunately, many supervisors misidentify bullying as personality conflict, disrespect, incivility, personality style, jealousy, insecurity or one employee having a bad day. It is natural to minimize the significance of a problem if it otherwise implies we may be called upon to use significant effort to address it. The more benign explanation usually wins out. This is also true with sexual harassment, which is not trivial or inconsequential. Investigate bullying as a possibility when you learn of employee conflict, particularly if you see a power disparity. One employee may have more tenure, clout, seniority or recognition as the expert, or be considered by customers and peers as the “go-to person.” These dynamics make it difficult for victims to defend themselves because of their subordinate position, inexperience, lack of clout or hesitation to be assertive

Q. It seems like bullies in the workplace often have some type of power, even if only imagined. Is this correct? What’s the supervisor’s role in prevention? Would training for employees help reduce risk?

A. You’re correct. Employees who bully often possess some degree of power — supervisory, tenure, delegated, indirect or team leadership. Some bullies may perceive that or mistakenly believe they have power or authority, and this alone is enough to prompt their aggressive behavior. Obviously bullies can exist anywhere in the organization, so conducting general education and awareness is helpful. This should include self-assessment for the potential perpetrator or victim. Throw in a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying and a significant reduction of the risk can be accomplished. Supervisors should be aware that a bully is often a trusted employee who is relied upon by the immediate supervisor for knowledge, expertise and skills. He or she can be passionate and loyal to the organization. Nevertheless, if a supervisor becomes overly dependent on this “right-hand man/gal” relationship, bullying behaviors may emerge, aided by the protection or special relationship the bully feels exists with the supervisor.

Q. What are the five most commonly perpetrated bullying behaviors?

A. Research varies, but according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, the five most common bullying behaviors are 1) Falsely accusing the victim of errors not actually made (“Oh, now look what you’ve done”), but refusing to show or prove any error. 2) Staring, glaring or behaving nonverbally in order to intimidate, but clearly showing hostility. 3) Discounting the person’s thoughts or feelings in meetings with peers (“Gee, duh, thanks for sharing, Susan.”) 4) Using the silent treatment to “ice out” and separate the victim from others. 5) Making up rules on the fly that the bully himself or herself does not follow but has then imposed on the victim. Understanding the broad range of bullying behaviors can help you spot them.


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