Workplace bullying is a phrase that is all too familiar. It’s a term that can be thrown about, sometimes too easily with limited regard to it’s meaning.

Yet, no matter how we use it, do we need to talk about workplace bullying less?

You might be surprised to learn that, as a workplace bullying specialist, I’d say yes. More often than not, what I find when I attend workplaces and educate on workplace bullying, it is too late. It’s not prevention, it’s reaction. Productivity has already been undermined. The workplace team are in turmoil. Employees have already been injured, or at the very least, placed at serious risk of injury.

So what exactly should we be talking about instead?

Let’s start with the why…

Before we start talking about the what, let’s talk about why we should talk about bullying less.

Workplace bullying is unreasonable, repeated behaviour that causes a risk to health and safety and a key reason of the why lies in it’s repeated nature. Bullying is like a collection of different coloured pixels that make up an image. A bullying episode may involve a mixture of covert or overt behaviours, from quietly withholding information from a fellow employee to make them look incompetent, to shouting and swearing at someone publicly.

Like a frog in a pot of cold water on the stove over a low flame, by the time many workers realise they are being bullied they may have been targeted for months or in some cases years. By the time bullying awareness has hit for that employee and everyone else in the workplace, injury has often already occurred.

So what should we be talking about?

Instead of talking about workplace bullying, we need to re-attune our focus to behavioural early warning signs that indicate a risk of bullying. When certain negative behaviours in the workplace are tolerated and go unaddressed, they often escalate to greater conflict and increase the risk of bullying. Let’s look at some of those.

Workplace incivility

We don’t spend a lot of time discussing workplace incivility in Australia; but in the US, it has developed with a great focus from researchers. Incivility researchers, Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, define incivility as “the exchange of seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms of workplace conduct”. Incivility can often be normalised, low level rude behaviours such as interrupting conversations, arriving late or disinterest in other’s opinions.

The behaviours involve a subjective interpretation of how one’s actions, which may be very subtle, make an individual feel and for some, these actions result in hurt. Unchecked and unacted upon, these seemingly small behaviours can escalate into much greater conflict.

Abrasive behaviours

Laura Crawshaw, abrasive leader coach and specialist, describes abrasive behaviours as “direct interpersonal aggression” which is experienced in day to day actions with abrasive individuals. Crawshaw terms abrasive leaders specifically as bosses who “rub their coworkers up the wrong way”. Abrasive behaviours can range from rudeness and demeaning behaviour through to abusive language and insults. These behaviours often result in negative impacts on work colleagues from avoidance to bullying claims.

Workplace Conflict

Workplace conflict can be both good and bad. Productive conflict in a psychologically safe workplace can lead to improved decision making as it involves candor and open-minded disagreements. This allows improved creativity and innovation. However, the challenge comes when conflict crosses the barriers and becomes personal conflict, when individuals don’t work together in a safe manner resulting in personal attacks, aggressive disagreement and humiliation.

The key with incivility, abrasive behaviours and negative conflict is that they are warning signs which are often ignored or passed off by target or observers. They are often passed of with comments like “He’s just having a bad day?” or “That’s just the way she is.” Sometime we internalise it within ourselves “Maybe I did something wrong” or “That couldn’t have just happened. I must have imagined it”. We do this and go about our day.

Sometimes these are once off, we all have bad days, and we get things wrong. However, it becomes problematic when it happens once, then again; and then again in a relatively short space of time. If that behaviour isn’t interrupted a pattern of condoned and normalised behaviour begins. Once the pattern of behaviour sets in, so does the fear based responses that stop action to prevent escalation to bullying. This is when people start to think “If I do something they might start on me” or “If I say something, I might be looked upon as a trouble maker”.

Changing the way we talk about workplace behaviours

When we talk about incivility, abrasive behaviour or conflict, we can change the way we view and act on negative workplace behaviours. In a psychologically safe workeplace, we can raise behaviours of concern without fearing negative personal consequences.

  • “I want you to come to me when you feel like you are being treated rudely or with incivility.”
  • “If other’s behaviour is rubbing you up the wrong way, I want you to let me know.”
  • “In the meeting today, I noticed you seemed to be responding to each other aggressively and in conflict. How can we change that?”

Recognising this allows us to intervene early rather than allowing it to escalate, and reacting to, workplace bullying.

And preventing it, saves you a whole bellyache of trouble.