Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bullying: The Silent Epidemic that Too Few Know How to Or Want to Handle

Since 9/11, the insanity of rage, blame and retaliation lurks more acutely in the background of our lives, personally and professionally. The perpetual wars against terror, large and small, permeate civil discourse too often at the expense of the things that really matter. Sporadic or chronic “wars” in the workplace add to the aura of an era of discontent fed by terrorism and its ripple effect: more rules and regulations, less trust, more conflict.

It’s hard to get away from “bad behaviour” when it dominates the media. Atrocities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Dafur, roving gangs in cities and gun-totting unhappy young men wreaking havoc in places of learning overshadow the issues and challenges of life lived locally. The statisticians remind us though that violence generally is not increasing and democratically governed countries continue to spread around the world.

But, that truth fades when in our every day existence we encounter “bullying” behaviour. The world might be getting more peaceful, but what does one do when another is far from being empathetic? Nasty’s a better word. Most of us are not well-prepared to work around what kids call “meanies”.

Being female, and having had a few vivid altercations with bullies, I have been inclined to view bullying as a male to female issue more so than vice versa. Women have figured in my archives but I have buried those incidents as wild cards.

So, when I came across by chance a surprising statistic from a 2006 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, I couldn’t help let out a weary sigh for my gender. Are we being affected adversely by our current era of discontent or is this all part of the journey of life, so, “get real”.

Of the 2,900 workers in the United States who were surveyed, 41 percent reported having experienced some sort of psychological aggression at work. But the zinger for me was that women said their aggressors were more likely to be women than men. Unfortunately, I’ve been hearing too many such stories of late during the course of my work. Is it time to open my eyes? It will be difficult because I have a much more visceral reaction to women taking out their frustrations on other women than I do men.

Idealism is the culprit. I keep holding on to a naive view about women: that we should, as a matter of principle, try mightily to support and mentor each other. It’s driven by a belief, whether right or wrong, that we need to stick together to realize our potential both individually and as a group. We are, in my opinion, in a different position than men, still in the early stages within our relatively young democratic society, of learning “the ropes” of and finding our rightful place in organizational life.

Well, it’s time to let go of idealism. As leaders, we women face the same personal development issues as men. We must learn how to wend our way through the politics of any workplace and the volatility of human relationships. Dealing with bullies/not being a bully is a necessary part of creating healthier workplaces and societies. Sometimes we’ve got to be “hard-nosed”: when we encounter bullies, bury our fears, confusion and guilt and draw the line in the sand on bad behaviour. Not allowed! On the other hand, to avoid ever being a bully, resist judging others, be guided by giving people the benefit of the doubt, and work hard at upping our empathy “IQ”. The latter requires practice.

Winnie, my husband’s mother was a gracious lady. She had sayings about life everywhere in her home. Every day, she read a passage from a booklet of inspirational thoughts. On her death, we inherited her “do-dads”. One of them is in full view in our kitchen: “put sugar in what you say and salt in what you hear”. A good rule of thumb for leaders to quell any possible bullying epidemic in their organizations.

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