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This weekend, I spent some quality time with my favorite geeks at Seattle Comic Con. After much deliberation, we decided to spring for a photo op with Tom Wilson (Biff) from “Back to the Future” and the infamous DeLorean. Waiting in line sparked several conversations about space-time continuum and, of course, bullies.
Movies love a villain, and most make it easy to determine “heroes” from “bullies”. Unfortunately, in the real world, it’s not always that clear.
On the surface, bullying situations can appear to be personality conflicts or workplace tension. Humans are complicated and emotionally-messy beings. People working closely together will not always like each other. Bullying is different.
Look closer. Bullies have a pattern. They employ systemic, intentional series of behaviors that exploit fear to gain power and control.
Bullying in the workplace is about silencing—ideas, new information, and diverse perspectives.
Coworkers who bully can engage overt tactics (aggressive language or body presence), or more subtle behaviors (belittling comments or gas lighting). Complicating things further, the bully may even present themselves as a victim to management. Constantly switching between bully and martyr creates instability; people are unsure how to respond, so they do nothing.
By not actively responding to this behavior, it becomes normal.
We tend to have a ‘gut sense’ of when something isn’t right with our team. Meetings become uncomfortable and disconnected. People stop contributing and asking questions—either to avoid drawing attention from the bully, or because doing so has become a waste of time and energy.
Think of it as a slow leak of toxic gas infiltrating your organization. Eventually, people shift their behaviors around the bully to prevent a negative encounter. Witnesses to bullying may not know how to react. Reporting it to Human Resources may feel excessive. Escalating to management could result in both parties sharing responsibility.
The stress and emotional toll doesn’t go away when people leave the office. All the energy needed to maintain day-to-day peace is exhausting. The personal health and well-being of everyone involved is damaged. Productivity drops, attrition spikes.
Differentiating between personal conflicts and true bullying behavior can be difficult.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when leading teams out of unhealthy situations.
1. Don’t suggest that targets make nice with their bully. This is a frequent approach for managers who are already overtaxed. It’s also a huge cop out. Confronting the bully directly is, at best, ineffective. In-person exchanges can be especially triggering if the target has experienced domestic violence or previous abuse.
2. Don’t conflate bullying behavior with “personality conflicts”. Bullying is not a difference in work style. Disagreements over policy and process, yes. Patterns of intimidating behaviors or harmful language, not so much.
3. Bullying is quickly normalized in work teams. People working in groups tend toward consensus and cooperation. The longer this behavior continues, the more people will attempt to rationalize it away. Comments and menacing that seem shocking at first will eventually be dismissed as “their way” of interacting.
4. Watch your team interact. Are people dramatically changing how they communicate? Toxic situations deflate teams so gradually that it can be difficult to see. Take a step back and check in when things seem off.
5. Cultivate group norms that address open and respectful communication. When teams are grounded on healthy conflict and mutual respect, normalizing toxic language becomes more difficult.
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