Bullying: a gender-neutral pursuit

The Brisbane Times has posed a controversial question: are women worse bullies than men? A quick scan of the comments page shows that this article has stirred up a lot of negative feeling. Many readers have shared their own experiences in the hands of workplace bullies, both male and female.

Unfortunately, workplace bullying is all too common. And its prevalence suggests some uncomfortable truths:

  1. Bullying is gender-neutral. Both sexes are capable of bullying behaviour. Such behaviour can have devastating effects on its victims. So the gender of the bully is not the problem. The bully’s behaviour is the problem.
  2. Bullies usually learn their craft the hard way–by being bullied themselves. If challenged about their behaviour, they’re likely to revert to victimhood–and accuse their challenger of bullying them! In the world of bully and victim, nothing is ever black and white.
  3. Bullying is a common human strategy for meeting our needs. We’re all capable of becoming bullies, given the wrong circumstances. So it’s important to monitor our behaviour regularly. Any time we feel  our needs are not being met, we need to take a step back. This discontent could easily turn into bullying behaviour–without us even knowing!
  4. People bully others because they have no other strategies for meeting their needs. Bullies lack genuine  communication and leadership skills. There are effective ways to guide, motivate and teach others. Bullying is ultimately ineffective.
  5. Organisations that tolerate bullying behaviour within their ranks are setting themselves up to fail. Bullying squelches innovation, reduces productivity, and inhibits customer service. Managers who refuse to investigate and act upon claims of bullying are failing in their role as leaders.

What’s the most powerful way to remove bullying behaviour from the workplace? It’s simple: encourage everyone to take responsibility for their observations, their beliefs, their emotions, and their needs. If a team member is late submitting a report, which is the better way to handle the situation?

  • ‘Why didn’t you get your report to me on time? You’re always late! Can’t you do anything right? The boss is on my case now, thanks to you.’
  • ‘I notice that you did not submit your report by the deadline last month. I’d like to take the opportunity to sit down with you, review your workload, and see if there’s more I need to do to support you.’

And as a team member, what is the best way to respond?

  • ‘I can’t cope with this. I’m feeling so stressed right now!’ (Bursts into tears.)
  • ‘Are you serious? You’re always dumping work on me at the last moment, and half my reports go straight into the round filing system. If you were in the office rather than swanning about having coffee with your management buddies on the seventh floor, you’d have some idea what kind of pressures we’re working under!’
  • ‘I understand that you’re angry with me. I’d like to sit down with you and work through what happened, so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. Are you open to that?’
  • ‘I’d appreciate that. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed at the moment, and I’m really disappointed that I’ve let the team down. I have some questions about the purpose of the report, as well, and it would be great to get some clarity in that area.’

The best responses are obvious. When we are able to express our observations, beliefs, emotions and needs in a clear and calm manner, bullies lose their power, and their bullying becomes redundant.


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