New Zealand has a terrible record for workplace bullying, in fact studies show that this country is among the worst in the world for this damaging practice.
One of the issues for people who are bullied is that they often don’t realise it until it’s too late – until they’ve been really damaged by it. Workplace bullying can cause all sorts of health repercussions from increased stress, heart issues, depression, anxiety, auto-immune disease, and has even been known to be a causal factor in suicide. It’s good for employers to be aware that workplace bullying is so serious that it can be fatal.
I spoke to Allan Hallse of CultureSafe who said in New Zealand 70 per cent of workplace bullying is top down – so managers on staff; 5 per cent is down up and 25 per cent is peer on peer.
So how do you spot a manager who is playing mindgames and is bullying before they achieve what they’re trying to achieve: To break down your confidence and sense of self?
Firstly it’s about understanding that not all psychopaths, narcissists and sociopaths are in jail – some are successful business people. There are people who bully just for the “sport” and have no empathy for others.
It’s good to note that most employees who are bullied tend to be good at their jobs, and get on with other people. Because they are likeable, it’s hard for them to see that someone may be out to get them not because of their work performance or in fact that they’ve done anything wrong, but because their manager likes playing mindgames, is lacking in empathy, or is in fact threatened by the employee in some way.
Hallse says if you’re in a team, you can see workplace bullying in the dynamics because bullies have favourites, “so they have people who are in the “in crowd” and people who aren’t. A strong manager is more collaborative and everybody has equal status, an authoritarian manager will treat everyone the same – badly – but at least they’re consistent. A workplace bully is really quite unique and they have some people who are close to them and others on the outer.”
He says workplace bullies are often charming and charismatic – the things you’d not expect them to be. People often don’t believe that they are bullies. “Those who are more overt and less charming tend not to last as long, because what they’re doing is obvious and the bullying is easy to identify.”
He says there are things that aren’t obvious: such as when a manager gives an employee impossible deadlines, or keeps giving them meaningless tasks that keep them away from their actual work. These are things that people other than the bullied person don’t see.
Counselling clients I have seen who are dealing with bullying, often mention the bully saying insulting and rude things to them under their breath so no one but they can hear it. There are moments of what may be called “micro-aggression” which is only fully understood by the person who it’s targeted at.
If they complain to someone, the comment may not seem so bad to them – that may be because they’re not realising how many little comments are made consistently to bring the target down.
Bullies are also known to give their targets the “silent treatment”. Being ignored by your manager can be really impactful and disheartening.
The workplace bully also works to isolate his/her target through bringing others onside. These people become “Flying Monkeys” or shadow bullies (think in terms of the Wizard of Oz – the Flying Monkeys did the Wicked Witch of the West’s bidding).
Often these so called Flying Monkeys are well meaning. They’re not seeing the whole situation and think they are. So when the bullied employee’s standard of work goes down, they see it as it being that the bullying manager is right: The person isn’t able/willing to do their job well. And so the target loses the support of colleagues who don’t want to associate with someone who is “on the out”.
Hallse says that because some colleagues may be extremely ambitious, they may see emulating the bully’s behaviour as a way to succeed. “If the bully is on top and is promoting people who behave in the way they do – it’s encouraging a toxic environment.”
Hallse says the reason why bullying is so high in New Zealand is that it’s so hard to identify the bullies. Some people have been bullied for years and don’t realise it. “It’s when we show them a list of bullying behaviours that they realise.”
There is a flowchart on the WorkSafe website at http://www.worksafe.govt.nz/worksafe/information-guidance/all-guidance-items/bullying-guidelines/flowchart-am-i-being-bullied
Hallse makes the point that the only way of really knowing that someone’s a bully is through being aware of what the behaviours are and understanding that you’re being bullied. “Most people in New Zealand are trusting and accept the behaviours. Bad behaviour becomes normalised.”
Hallse agrees that if you think you’re being bullied, you need to document every interaction with the bully (even the ones that seem ok) as then a trend can be seen and that can be used in an official complaint or legal action.
He says, “One of the things I’m proud of is setting up CultureSafe in order to show people that workplace bullying is real. There was a time when people would say it’s just a figment of your imagination. What is done is that every instance of workplace bullying gets broken down and trivialised.
“When there’s been documentation it really helps address it.”
* Val Leveson is an Auckland-based counsellor