What comes to mind when you think of a bully?

The schoolyard jock who mocks and calls the scrawny kid names? The cool girls in junior high who gossip and make fun of the nerdy girl behind her back? Unpleasant memories for sure, but at least we are adults now and that is all behind us.

But wait. Thank about it. In your workplace, are there those who talk negatively about others behind their backs? Are there people who publicly shame others for their perceived incompetence? Are there some who refuse to work with others because they can’t deal with their demeaning behavior? Of course there are.

We call it by different names now: incivility in the workplace, lateral violence. But let’s call a spade a spade: it’s bullying.

“The vast majority of us are, of course, not inherently bad people, but we deal with a lot of stresses that can lead to bullying,” explains Adele Webb, PhD, RN, FNAP, FAAN, Senior Academic Director of Workforce Solutions for Capella University. “We rely on each other to be successful. But with that dependency on one other comes stress and conflict. There is just so much that we have to manage and deal with that it’s not surprising that stress sometimes results in bullying.”

Not only can bullying negatively affect morale and job satisfaction, but it also can have a negative effect on business outcomes and therefore the bottom line.

So how do we avoid that? How can we combat bullying in the workplace? Webb offers the following three suggestions:

Recognize When You Are the Bully

When it comes to bullying, we are often so focused on how to protect the victim that we forget there are often as many bullies among us. The truth is, any of us can be a bully, and we often don’t even realize it. We may believe we are just being direct or straightforward or have high standards. What matters is how our actions are perceived.

“Whether you know you are acting like a bully or not, you should go to a trusted colleague and ask them to call you out if they see you are doing something that could be considered bullying,” Webb says. “Often we don’t see the bullying behaviors in ourselves, or we are in denial or defensive about our behavior. But there are usually signs that our co-workers pick up on first.”

However, we can’t solely rely on our colleagues to call out our inappropriate behavior. We need to be self-aware, too.

“Recognize if you raise your voice, if you roll your eyes, if you are dismissive to other ideas and opinions, as that is often perceived as bullying,” Webb says. “If people are avoiding you, if they don’t want to come to your floor, if they don’t want to be on a team with you, there is a good chance you are acting like a bully. Stop it.”

If You Are Being Bullied

As mentioned above, oftentimes the co-worker who is acting like a bully isn’t even aware they are doing it. Bringing their actions to their attention and explaining why it is hurtful can be eye-opening for them.

“If they truly did not mean to behave harshly, just having that conversation can abruptly halt the behavior,” Webb says. “Just the embarrassment of it all can stop the bullying in its tracks.”

But what about when that person DOES mean to act harshly? What if their actions and words were intentionally hurtful?

“Most organizations have zero-tolerance policies for this type of behavior, so it is important to lean on those policies when you elevate your concerns,” Webb says. “If it’s a supervisor or someone in leadership who is doing the bullying, you may have to go over their head. That can be hard and scary, but it’s important to take action to keep things from escalating.”

Webb adds that you should have as many documented examples of the bullying behavior as possible. It’s also important to have an understanding of what bullying really is. It’s not a normal, healthy disagreement. It’s not being asked to do something you don’t want to do. It’s vindictive. It’s malicious. It’s demeaning.

Make Anti-Bullying Part of Your Organizational Culture

Taking a stand against bullying has to go beyond just having a zero-tolerance policy in place. It needs to be rooted in organizational values. It needs to be a topic that is openly and often discussed among employees at all levels.

“From the very beginning, it’s critical to align your organizational values with a culture of mutual respect,” Webb says. “Bullying needs to be talked about. It needs to be exposed and identified for what it is. It can’t be buried in a new employee orientation manual never to see the light of day again. You need to regularly revisit and address it. Do workshops on it. Discuss it at regular team meetings. By making it real and front of mind, you will have a better chance at diminishing it.”

“It’s a lot easier to ignore bullying than address it,” Webb concludes. “Too often we say, ‘Oh, just ignore him or her.’ Or, ‘Just deal with it. You’re both adults. Figure it out.’ We need to be more proactive than that.”

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