Human Resources

Understanding the psychology of workplace bullying

IT staff seem to receive more than their fair share of bullying. It's a topic that's cropped up several times on IDG Connect, and the industry has even had its own high-profile pin-up bullies.

When responding to workplace bullying, companies sometimes set up administrative processes that a bullied employee can go through. These include keeping a diary of events, informing line managers, asking HR to get involved, initiating grievance procedures and using contact reduction strategies.

This is all necessary and useful, but it ignores a fundamental point. Bullying is primarily a psychological threat. Although it's not unheard of for physical violence to occur in the workplace, the vast majority of bullying is carried out through words. Any bullying actions tend to be of a passive-aggressive nature, such as deliberately leaving a targeted employee out of an important meeting or ignoring them when they speak. But workplace bullying is nearly always verbal or written behaviour.

Why is that so harmful? Because harsh words are internalised by the victim, built into an internal narrative that can be incredibly destructive to motivation and confidence. Bullies are usually in a position of power, of superiority, and we are used to seeking approval from our superiors – going right back to our parents. It can be crushing to receive criticism and degradation instead.

If you're a victim of workplace bullying, it's important to understand the power of words, and then act on that knowledge. You should go through the recommended HR steps too, of course, but never forget that you are an individual, not just an employee. That means you have the right to respond to bullying behaviour on your own terms.

Understand your bully

I don't mean in an empathic sense, but if you can understand a bully's motivation, you can work out your options for escaping their attention.

Leaving aside 'entrepreneurial' psychopathy, two of the biggest drivers are insecurity and a desire to punish weakness. If you're in a competitive work environment (e.g. sales) and the bully sees you as a threat (i.e. you're a better worker), that can make you a potential target. And if you appear to be meek and mild, apparently unlikely to fight back, the bully will sense easy pickings.

There's not much you can do about the first point. It's up to the management of your company to foster a spirit of co-operative competition rather than cut-throat elimination, and some don't understand how to do that. But the second point you can certainly address. At the first hint of bullying, react. Don't let a single comment go unmarked. Every bullying act, no matter how small, must be challenged, questioned and thrown back in the bully's face.

Use words to fight back. Talk down to the bully. Imagine you're chastising a small, annoying child who keeps repeating the same idiotic behaviour over and over again. Picture that image in your mind when talking to your bully. Be firm, be clear and be loud, because the bigger the audience the better. Make sure everybody in the room hears you, every time. For example:

"Please stop doing/saying that. It's rude and offensive and unprofessional. I am trying to work. Go away."

If you keep this up, the bully will eventually move on, because the cost-benefit analysis is against them. The gains to be had from bullying you will be far outweighed by the public embarrassment of being called out on every stupid thing they do. It will also make it much harder for them to deny or defend their actions during a grievance hearing.

Stay fit and healthy

Your mind is heavily influenced by the state of your body – and vice-versa. When you are subjected to bullying behaviour, your body's instinctive fight-or-flight response will kick in, releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into your blood-stream. Since running away from the office is rarely an option, and launching a bronze-age spear at your attacker's head might result in a written warning*, these stress hormones have no outlet.

Over time their build-up will affect your health, potentially increasing your risks of physical illnesses such as heart disease and high blood pressure. You can counteract some of this by maintaining a healthy exercise regime, combining cardiovascular workout with resistance exercises. The endorphins resulting from this activity will also improve your self-esteem and self-confidence. This will not only help you respond appropriately to bullying behaviour, but also reduce the chances of you being bullied in the first place.

Healthy eating is also important. The pizzas-and-fizzy-drinks image of IT workers' diets might be largely apocryphal, but as a group we're not especially healthy eaters. Change that. Draw up a healthy eating plan and stick to it, cutting down on junk food, alcohol and stimulants. This is good advice whether you're being bullied or not, since you should find yourself with a lot more energy to handle your working day.

Watch the management

Amongst upper management and board members, bullying behaviour can sometimes be seen as positive, a way to drive the workforce harder. In some industries and cultures it's endemic and even tacitly rewarded, despite there being far better, more intelligent ways of getting staff to perform well.

Unfortunately, the best advice if you find yourself in such a dinosaur company is to leave. Even better, do your initial research carefully (by talking to employees and researching on social media) and avoid joining in the first place.

That may sound defeatist, but it takes a dedicated, strong-willed and self-confident person to attempt to change company culture from the bottom. Most who try will fail, and suffer badly in the process. Take your hard-earned IT skills and abilities elsewhere instead, and let corporate evolution follow its course, leaving the small-brained management to drive their company onto the rocks.

Even then, you don't have to leave quietly. Kick up a fuss, initiate grievance procedures, let everyone know what's happening. You might even enjoy it, safe in the knowledge that you're leaving anyway. But pick your battles wisely and preserve your sanity. Some organisations are truly awful and the best thing you can do for your career is leave them far behind.

Maintain a positive perspective

As noted above, bullying is primarily a psychological activity, which means its biggest effects take place in your mind. Your mind. The space in your head belongs to you, and you can regain control of it. There are all sorts of practical psychological exercises that can help you gain better focus and control of your mental processes – and unfortunately a lot of snake oil remedies too.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one psychological tool that's proved its worth over the years, and it's essentially free from quackery and cost. Sometimes used as a treatment for depression, it involves countering 'negative automatic thoughts' - such as those that might result from workplace bullying – with positive responses. Over time the negative thoughts are diminished in power, to the point of irrelevance. There's plenty of useful CBT material online. It works, and there are probably many other techniques that do too.

Most important of all, don't forget to have a life. Work is a necessity in order to live, not a goal in itself. That's why we have to be paid to do it. Switch off at the end of the day, don't be pushed into working late with no reward, have hobbies, enjoy your free time. All of this will help you regain the correct perspective on your bully – as an insecure loser who deserves to be treated only with contempt.


* Bullying is always a serious matter, but humour can help reduce stress.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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