On Beating Bullies

I did some work recently for a large government department who’ve instituted a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy in regards bullying and discrimination. Their intentions are commendable.

Intention is one thing, enforcement another. There is a strong feeling in the organisation that any identified bully should be hung, drawn and quartered. Ideally, the perpetrator would be amongst the ranks of senior management, so as to demonstrate the absolute seriousness of the policy.

The belief is that naming and shaming will curtail behaviour. The risk is that we move beyond policy to something more like a witch-hunt. Bullies are bad. All bullies should be found and punished. And before you know it, we’ve launched a moral crusade.

I want to be clear: bullying, as a form of behaviour, is wrong. This isn’t in question. What is less clear is where we draw the line. In a context where people are under enormous pressure to perform, with tighter deadlines and less resources, I suspect that many of us might feel like dispensing with niceties and just tell people what to do. In short, to bully them into getting the work done.

I’m not convinced that this is a situation best remedied by vindictiveness. Organisations need to abandon witch-hunts in favour of a something more akin to an Alcoholics Anonymous approach.. The ideal then isn’t for some senior executive to lose their head. Rather, they’d stand and publicly declare “My name is X, and I’m under such extreme stress that I feel like bullying my staff every single day”. In the face of increasing demands, wanting to kick someone’s butt to get stuff done is neither incomprehensible nor evil. It’s simply normal.

By demonising the behaviour, there’s every chance that we drive it underground..People will get better at disguising it. Bullying will evolve into more subtle forms of coercion and manipulation. And with every new variation, the possibility of change grows more remote.

What we need to get across is that while the urge towards compelling others may be understandable, it’s not a necessity. There are ways other than bullying that can get things done – without destroying trust, respect and relationships in the process. Some people will undoubtedly need help in learning alternative management techniques. In which case what they need isn’t to be punished, but mentored, coached and educated.

Ultimately, if someone is courageous enough to stand up and own up, then beating them up just feels cruel and wasteful.  Zero-tolerance is a worthy ideal. No one should have to suffer bullying in the workplace. And paradoxically, it may actually be tolerance — insofar as we recognise and acknowledge in ourselves the desire to bully — that offers us the best chance of helping people to do otherwise.


Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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