As much as professionals encourage each other to be nice, bullies are as easy to find in the office as they are on playgrounds. In fact, according to a 2017 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), bullying affects an "epidemic-level" 60.3 million American workers, with 9 percent of surveyed individuals saying they've experienced it in the last year or are currently going through it.
It might have many roots, but it's no accident.
The problem, according to Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental wellbeing and self-development platform, Remente, can happen for a range of reasons, including personal insecurity. But Johnny Warström, CEO and Co-founder of interactive presentation tool Mentimeter, also points out that, according to a Harvard Business Review study, bosses who place a high value on their place in the hierarchy are likely to bully their employees that pose a threat to their status.
"Bullying isn't random," Eék says, "but is calculating behavior [...]. Focused on getting ahead, bullies exploit the weaknesses of others for their own gain, and many studies show that they tend to excel at office politics, allowing them to keep their jobs despite their behavior."
And none of it bodes well for a company's bottom line.
"Workplace bullying can have a huge effect [...], thrwarting company loyalty and commitment to the firm and their work," Eék asserts. "People who are victims of bullying lose motivation due to feelings of isolation, unfair treatment and low self-esteem. This affects productivity and creates a hostile work environment, which has been linked to a rise in sick leave, staff turnover and costs to recruit and train new employees."
And to clarify, the sick leave isn't just people calling in because they don't want to deal with the bully. Being a victim can cause real physical and psychological health problems, including panic attacks, increased stress and elevated blood pressure.
"[It] makes it near impossible to create a supportive and inclusive culture in which teams thrive," says Warström. "Inevitably, performance is affected as people lose self-esteem and have trouble making decisions and concentrating on tasks. This is bound to impact company goals as employees struggle to perform at their best."
What to do if someone else is the bully
Transparency can be your best weapon in the fight to keep bullying in check, according to Warström.
"By creating a culture where people are encouraged to address conflict and provide feedback immediately and directly - regardless of your status within the company - one is able to nip hostility in the bud and foster an environment where everyone's voice is heard. This includes senior leaders openly admitting their shortcomings and taking steps to address them by incorporating feedback from their teams to do better."
Eék similarly recommends clear communication and addressing the bully directly.
"[Try] the 'when you said x, it made me feel x, and therefore x action happened' method," he advises. "It's absolutely essential that you stand up for yourself and try to address the root cause, because bullies prey on those they think will let them get away with their behavior."
What to do if the bully is you
Only a tiny percentage of people surveyed by WBI (0.3 percent, or 533,332 people) admitted to bullying. After all, most people want to assume that they are likeable, warm and fair. But Warström and Eék both say there are big warning signs that you're coming off as a bully to others.
- Nobody speaks up in your meetings (suggests that workers are afraid to voice their opinions around you)
- Workers don't look you in the eye
- Employees consistently get advice elsewhere
- You find yourself talking at employees, not to them; it's difficult to receive feedback/suggestions and you prefer to give orders instead of working together for the best result
- You interrupt others instead of actively listening
- You blame others for mistakes instead of focusing on solutions
"To identify the reasons you bully, assess your habits and the trigger points," says Eék. "Once you know where it comes from, it will become easier to manage. Then try to gain control of the situation by taking deep breaths or removing yourself from the situation until you can come back with a clear and calmer mindset. Finally, set yourself a manageable goal, such as complimenting one colleague per day or having regular check-ins with your team that include constructive feedback. If you think that you are struggling to move on by yourself, then do this with a trustworthy mentor."
Regardless of who perpetrates, the bottom line is clear: Bullying is a choice, and at the end of the day, only the bully or your business can survive. Today is the day you ensure it's the latter.