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Bullying: Transition to the Workplace

Learning can be violent.

Recently, the term bullying has been gaining momentum with reference to the workplace. News broadcasts have started to describe various workplace scenarios in which bullying has become prevalent. At the core of bullying is victimization, a long-standing and unfortunate tradition of human interaction that has taken many shapes throughout history. The articles I read reminded me of my daughter's experiences with bullying, but also shifted my attention to the adult world. A Google search for entries about victimization on EDN revealed, to my surprise, a number of references.

We tend to think of bullying as a physical means of literally beating a person up, but in the workplace it is largely psychological. It is interesting to watch how insecure people intentionally spread rumours and misinformation with the intent to cause another individual some form of harm. Psychological bullying can have devastating effects on the unwary. However, in the end that we all face, bullying will ultimately devastate the bully...

In Sticky Situations: Bullying at Work the BBC identifies the following as examples of bullying:

  • Insults
  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Ridiculing or demeaning someone
  • Exclusion or victimisation
  • Overbearing supervision and other misuse of power or position
  • Deliberately undermining people and blocking promotion or training opportunities
Many bullies attempt hide themselves behind the cloak of superiority and authority, a telling sign of personal insecurity. Bullies are clearly unhappy in life and victimize others in a bizarre attempt to bolster their own sense of self-esteem. In the workplace, this self-defeating spiral is often paraded as a means to secure a position of power within an organzation at the expense of others.

Bullying is a form of violence, and both involve learning. It can be obvious, and it can be cleverly cloaked under various guises such as optimism, cooperation or progress. Creating an illusion of optimism (i.e. - the bully victimizes people under the guise of optimism) may be one of the most powerful tactics. There are many kinds of victimization tactics all of which have some strategic use of language. None of this is surprising, it has been happening for centuries.

The Globe and Mail article Bully for them: Abusive behaviour at work states that one in six workers are victims of bullying. It also indicates a range of negative health consequences for the target of bullying including anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. Further, the typical duration of bullying is 22 months and 70% of the victims lose their job as a result.

Statistics such as these are helpful in describing the general symptoms of the problem, but they do little to communicate the depth and more human dimensions of the problem. Absent in these news media accounts are the actual stories of how bullying infects an individual's life, as well as the lives of family and friends. Being imprisoned means that we are physically confined against our will, but the confinement can also be psychological and spiritual. Bullying, in this sense, is a form of physical, psychological and spiritual confinement. In the workplace, there is also a kind of financial confinment since the worker's income and status within the organization is often the underlying and very real threat.

Of course, we would never refer to experiences such as Viktor Frankl's as bullying. The term in this context is insulting since the conditions are obviously far more virulent. But I return to the power of learning in Viktor Frankl and reflect upon the heroic quality of his life. There is a sense of self-organization in learning here that is mythic in proportion. The nature of his horrific imprisonment threatened self-preservation itself. Reading and appreciating an account like this makes any horror movie seem trite and insignificant.

Yet bullying in the workplace imposes a clear sense of confinement. Rather than focus on statistical appearances and entertainment value of bullying by the way of selling news media, it is perhaps of greater value to focus on how the intended victim can self-organize their learning, and leverage the invaluable lessons that an individual like Viktor Frankl has to offer about living a life worth living.

I also suspect that this connection between what we read and how we leverage our understanding of that reading in relation to our own lives is at the core of literacy, or what it means to be literate. Literacy is not merely an act of decoding text into patterns of thought in a circular dance of syntax, vocabulary, punctuation, reading, writing, speaking, etc. - it is one way of informing what we do in life and how we go about living.

If the intended victims of bullying have acquired a deep sense of heroic narratives that serve to inform how they live their own lives, they possess the nucleus of self-organization in learning. In spiritual terms, we may seek these narratives in the Bible, the Koran, the Tao or another source. In social terms, we can seek these narratives through the lives of others, of the people we consider to be heros in the deeper sense of that word. Facts, data and information do little in the absence of narrative to inspire meaning in what we do.

Gary Namie, in the Globe and Mail article, states:

"Bullying closely resembles the phenomenon of domestic violence. Both were shrouded in silence before being brought to public attention. Partner violence victims were initially blamed for their fate. Eventually the behaviour was deemed unacceptable by society as codified in law. Workplace bullying deserves the same evolution from recognition to prohibition," he writes in the Ivey Business Journal.

This is of course good advice, as long as attempts to create these social prohibitions don't denigrate into witch-hunts and a deluge of false accusations. I sometimes wonder why psychologists, who speak of things such as empowerment, resilience, courage, and the like, rarely refer to authentic situations.

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