Workplace Bullying is a culture – and it is often rewarded


To cleanse workplaces of bullying cultures, organisations need to boost empathy, writes Ethel Kuuya.

All types of bullying have the same goal in common: to make someone feel small so the bully can feel big, gain power and influence, and get ahead. Workplace bullying comes with a twist: bullies can – and often do – get promoted or earn more money because of it.

Bullying is when hostile behaviour is intentional and targeted at an individual or groups of individuals, often occurring over an extended period and usually perpetrated by those who wield direct or indirect power or influence within the workplace.

Before we unpack how bullying gains space to thrive and become a culture, let’s go behind the mask of the bully and the victim.

The emotional environment of a bully

Contrary to conventional thinking, bullies are far from confident and self-assured. The operational mindset of a bully is that they are, in fact, not good enough, and to gain self-worth and praise, they must orchestrate the demise of others.

In truth, bullies operate from a dimension of fear, shame, and deep insecurity. A bully is doubtful that their skillset is enough to get them ahead, worried that their performance cannot stand for itself, and feels shame due to deeply personal occurrences in their past.

Bullies do get ahead. Many more bullies occupy key leadership roles than not. They have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable people who may be at their mercy, either due to an irrational social hierarchy bias (such as gender, race, or nationality) or a structural authority differential such as boss and subordinate, or both.

The emotional environment of the victim

There are two types of victims of bullying: those who endure and suffer and those who speak up.

While victims of bullying have a clear understanding of how deplorable bullying behaviour is, those who endure and suffer often do not feel they have an alternative. They, too, may believe that they are at the mercy of the bully, may unconsciously believe the social hierarchy or feel powerless to stand up to those in power. Sometimes it is quite simply that they count the cost of speaking up to be high.

Those who speak up against bullying are likely to have a strong sense of self and reject bullying as acceptable behaviour, even if they may have endured it for a period.

Regrettably, sometimes victims become perpetrators as they accept that this as the only way to get ahead or be safe in the organisation.

The reality is that the organisation is failing both the bully and the victim by not intentionally building a psychologically safe culture.

Is Your organisation breeding – and rewarding – bullies?

There are organisations whose success (or demise) is attributable to a company culture in which “survival of the fittest” is survival of the meanest. These organisations often feature practices, policies or systems that:

  • Talk about teams, yet reward individualism.
  • Brandish diversity, yet practise marginalisation.
  • Use performance metrics that encourage destructive competitiveness among colleagues.
  • Use a working definition of talent as the loudest, brashest suck-ups who spend their lives fawning over leaders, or the sneaky passive aggressors who take credit for others’ work.
  • Do not train the workforce on signs of bullying.
  • Provide no avenue for victims of bullying to safely report.
  • Do not take action against known bullies – for whatever reasons.
  • Is workplace bullying an acceptable cost of doing business?

In the long term, however much of a super performer the bully might be, no organisation can afford the direct and indirect impact a bully has on overall productivity. If one person is a star because they put out the light of others, what results is low productivity in those others. Costs of bullying include:

  • Low productivity
  • Absenteeism
  • High turnover of talent
  • Psychologically unsafe practices that result in legal action
  • Reputational damage to the firm
  • Inability to attract top talent
  • Decrease in ownership and loyalty
  • Abuse of resources

On a more magnified level, the costs are significant and include market share losses and consumer aversion.

Empathy, the antidote to bullying

Empathy is the ability to make space and accept other people’s reality – whether or not we have had similar experiences. In practice, it is the choice organisations and leaders make to lead from a place that considers the cost of psychological safety of decisions taken.

To cleanse workplaces of bullying cultures, organisations need to ramp up empathy as both a practice and a value. I share my Culture Decoding Matrix, which organisations can use to identify which quadrant their culture falls within. Bully Kryptonite (quadrants 1 and 2) or Bully Heaven (quadrants 3 and 4).

The question must be asked: What type of leader allows bullying to thrive? A bully leader.

Ethel, CEO at Advisory Kulture, will be speaking about workplace bullying at the HR Indaba to be held on 18 October. She will be sharing the stage with Penny Hlubi, HR Director at Bosch Holdings and Glencore Alloys’ HR Direcrtor Edwin Hlatswayo.

Not registered yet for the HR Indaba? HR professionals qualify for FREE tickets. Register today:

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