This guest article by Keryl Egan first appeared in Training Australia Magazine,.
Bullying behaviours include not only observable and explicit humiliating abuse but also hidden, insidious attacks upon a person and their capacity to do their job, their enjoyment of productive working relationships and the advancement of their career. These bullying behaviours include…
- Blocking access to training and promotion
- Withholding information essential to do the job properly
- Spreading malicious rumours, lies, professional slurs
- Unfair use of disciplinary and assessment procedures
- Persistent undue criticism and scrutiny, inaccurate accusations about quality of work
- Setting workers up to fail by setting impossible deadlines and targets
- Undermining responsibility
- Isolation and coercion
- Creating a climate of fear via emotional abuse or public humiliation
To date, advice to those suffering psychological injury from this kind of bullying has centred around following a recommended grievance process or counselling for stress management. As a clinical psychologist, I have seen many people in my practice who take one to two years, sometimes more, to recover from a sustained bullying campaign in the workplace. Some never recover and withdraw from their profession or are permanently unable to perform at previous levels of competence and confidence. Others cannot adjust to the humiliating loss of status and career, nor can they accept that they are shells of their former selves. They become anxious and depressed, but they are also angry, not only at the bully but at the system which failed to protect them. Such post-traumatic stress results from the shattering of their assumptions about the basic goodness of human beings and about their own basic self-worth. Those who encountered a psychopathic type of bully have glimpsed an evil they had not thought possible in their ordinary working life in a “safe” Australian society.
People with strong humanitarian ideals are particularly vulnerable to trauma from this hidden political bullying, which is why health, welfare and education have more than their fair share of psychological injuries. Other working conditions where this kind of bullying flourishes are when there is a scarcity mentality resulting from excessive cost-cutting or a “lean and mean&” philosophy. Organisations are also vulnerable to bullying when significant change is allowed to go unmanaged, creating a leadership vacuum which is easily invaded by the political bully who has successfully developed an influence network and who manages upwards.
Counselling and psychotherapy certainly help those who have suffered a traumatic assault by a bully. However, once a psychological injury has occurred, recovery takes considerable time and stress injuries are known to take longer than any other injuries for return to work. I have been disappointed by the limitations of existing therapeutic methods used to address this kind of suffering and have looked for faster ways to help. This has involved using a therapeutic team to simultaneously provide a range of techniques which include psycho-education and specific stress management tools, which address physical symptoms such as clinical hypnosis and the HeartMath program.
For some years now, I have been searching for more proactive ways of preventing psychological injury in the first place. The inaction of management has been puzzling and frustrating, especially when the business case for prevention is obvious, such as when bullying has produced a toxic and unproductive culture which is costly to maintain. I could only conclude that, unless the bullying is endemic and coming from the top, managers generally have not really known what to do about it, so they have turned a blind eye or promoted the bully to get rid of the problem. Awareness raising and anti-bullying policies only go part of the way. They do not fix the problem.
It was not until I began to work with organisations doing pre-liability assessments and reviews in teams where bullying was occurring that I seriously began to investigate the obvious — that bullying is a serious abuse of the politics of power and influence. It was here, in the field of politics, that I found a broad body of knowledge which constructively informs our understanding of bullying. Power, for example, encompasses not only the formal power of management but also the informal and personal power which any employee can use against another. We all have power of one kind or another. Learning to develop and use it ethically and with sensitivity is critical to effective management and to getting things done.
In the Australian culture, our concern for the “underdog” and a “fair go” are significant moderators of power. However, it may be that this identification with the oppressed has created a blind spot which has prevented us from appreciating the normal processes of using power judiciously and fairly and the use of reason, friendliness and bargaining to influence others for sanctioned goals. If we appreciate positive politics or statesmanship, then we can more clearly define bullying behaviours, especially psychopathic bullying, as a perversion of normal political processes which are an essential part of our working lives. Most of us, however, shy away from the idea of being political, as even the word itself connotes mistrust, underhand deals and manipulation. It is therefore with some trepidation that I am suggesting that learning constructive political skills could be a necessary antidote to the current outbreak of bullying which is of world-wide concern.
As part of my research effort to integrate the two bodies of knowledge of bullying and corporate politics I sought out colleagues in Britain and the USA. We now have a network which includes Dr Gary Ranker from New York, who has many years of experience working in corporate politics, and Colin Gautrey from London. The combination of expertise and experience in corporate politics coaching together with assessment and skills training for the ethical use of power and influence is proving to be a highly effective means of addressing bullying. Learning political skills provides a positive and ethical means for progressing sanctioned corporate agendas and integrating work objectives with one’s own needs, interests and goals. These skills help to get things done without damaging oneself or others in the process. The spin-off is that it also works for the management of other behavioural risks which derail individual careers and damage organisational cultures. Such skills are also extremely useful when working with difficult clients or sensitive issues.
Political skills training is designed to combat “dirty tricks” and takes current bullying awareness training, anti-bullying policies and grievance procedures to the next level. This training empowers people to act effectively on their own behalf before a bullying pattern takes hold. Current advice which emphasises talking to the bully, to line managers, and then moving to a formal grievance process is inadequate and sometimes can be dangerous. Talking to a political bully from the standpoint of a victim or target, without a good understanding of how to use power and influence, is asking for trouble. Frequently, people become more ill and stressed as they fail to influence the bully or management to act effectively, and they are forced to move towards a formal grievance process.
Developing political skills empowers people to detect unethical and hidden power plays or destructive tactics by others, whether managers, peers or clients. Knowing that you have techniques for dealing with destructive behaviour on the spot improves confidence, resilience and productivity. When both the ethical and destructive uses of power and influence become part of an informed conversation at work and political experience is shared in teams, dirty tricks lose their power. Unethical political behaviours only work when silent and hidden. When everyone knows how it works and people talk about it openly, the game is up.
Keryl is a specialist consultant to organisations in the areas of bullying and harassment, including political bullying. She works both organisationally and individually on the prevention of bullying and on the change process when bullying has already occurred. This includes organisational stress assessments, individual coaching, 360º processes and teamwork for both bullies and bullied. Keryl is also able to combine Colin Gautrey’s tools and techniques with her client work. To contact Keryl, click here.