Learning to Name Workplace Bullying
Making Sense of the Senseless
While it was happening, I didn't know there was a name for it. Things had gotten unbearable at work. I was flying apart at the seams, and I felt like I was losing my mind. Desperate to make it end, I quit my job, not even considering that things could get even worse after that. I had no idea that driving me out of the workplace enough; destroying my career was the end goal.
It's easy to think that bullying only happens to children, and that can create blinders that make it difficult to recognize workplace bullying and name it what it is. If we don't properly name it, then those who are targeted end up suffering in silence because they don't realize that what they're experiencing happens to other people too.
Understanding Workplace Bullying
Once I realized that what happened to me was in fact bullying, I had an unquenchable thirst for information. I needed to understand what had happened to me, and to do that I needed to situate it within a broader context. I found a lot of research literature on workplace bullying, and as I read it I felt a sense of relief—so this is what it is, it has a name, and it's real. It's not just me. That was very important, because bullying is profoundly isolating as a result of the shame it creates.
I learned that mobbing is the name for bullying that is done by a group. When this happens at work, the goal is often to push the target out of the workplace. There are often organizational factors that support the mobbing, despite high profile anti-bullying policies, making it even more difficult for the target to fight back.
Research has shown that victims of mobbing are often highly intelligent and competent. I found this particularly interesting, as at the time it was hard for me to reconcile why I was being attacked when I knew that I was actually very good at my job. If I raised an entirely valid concern about a workplace issue, it would be dismissed out of hand. I knew that I was right, but I was being treated like an idiot for even bringing up the issue.
Workplace bullying often involves attacks on professional competence and reputation, and this can negatively impact future career opportunities. These attacks are often done in a manner that is subtle enough to conceal malicious intent on the part of the perpetrator. Such an approach means that others tend to give credence to the negative comments the bully is making about the target, as they are perceived to be balanced and rational.
This kind of approach tends o make the target feel powerless and worthless. I felt utterly powerless, and I was highly conflicted between the inherent worth I thought I had and the onslaught of messages initiated by the bullies and perpetuated by others that I was worthless. The bullying was perpetrated for the most part by individuals who had power over me, and despite my desperate pleas to others for help, I was completely stripped of any sort of agency.
Consequences of Workplace Bullying
The research literature I found used an array of terms to describe the effects of workplace, and these resonated profoundly with me—humiliation, degradation, traumatizing, destroyed, paranoid, hopeless, worthless, isolated, shattered lives and psychological will broken. For me, bullying triggered an episode of my mood disorder from which I've never fully recovered. I've struggled with self-blame and a lot of anger, both against the perpetrators and the world at large.
The bullying I experienced had a profound effect on how I perceive the world around me, and according to research I am not alone in this. It's difficult for me to feel safe. I no longer believe that people will get the consequences they deserve for their harmful behaviour. I don't believe that anyone will take my side if someone tries to pull me down.
Recently the #metoo movement has resulted in highly courageous women who have spoken out against sexual harassment and sexual assault. The silence that protected the perpetrators for so long is being shattered. When people collectively raise their voices, real social change can result.
We need to learn from the power of the #metoo movement and start to raise our voices about workplace bullying. This kind of abuse never occurs within a vacuum; there are always organizations that have created the environment in which this can happen and the perpetrators can get away with it. Challenging workplace bullying begins with recognizing it and naming it.