Bullying in the workplace

Bullying. It’s restricted to schoolyards, isn’t it? Oh no, it’s not! It happens in many spheres, including business and management, even the boardroom.

However, it is rarely acknowledged in executive circles. Even victims may go into denial, further complicating the task of assessing bullying’s prevalence and impact on performance.

Internationally – where the problem is discussed much more openly than in South Africa – two types of intimidation have been identified: bullying (a one-on-one issue) and mobbing (when a ring leader and pack hound a victim).

Papers on the subject point out that a victim’s health and career can be undermined. So can corporate health. A toxic environment destroys team spirit and at the top may lead to decision-making by a clique with a blinkered, even warped view of how to lead and motivate others in the organisation.

Of course, executive bullying is much more sophisticated than violence or the threat of it. Though tactics may be subtle, “deviant behaviour” like this can still be studied.

European research goes back to at least the 1980s and shows that five types of bullying or mobbing may occur …

Gagging by attacking self-expression and communication (ignoring emails, not taking phone calls and failing to share information)
Social belittling through name-calling, yelling and ostracism
Reputational attacks via rumour, innuendo and lies
Sabotage by undermining work projects, setting unrealistic deadlines, withholding pay rises, perks and promotion or overloading a victim with a succession of tough tasks while a favoured few get easy assignments
Subverting health and status by labelling a victim ‘crazy’ or ‘sick’, thereby increasing the risk of mental or physical illness.

The bully (or mob) often exploits an area of vulnerability. It may be a person’s appearance, culture or social and educational background (attending the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ schools).

Researchers describe two forms of complicity. Others notice the intimidation, but do nothing about it, assuming (wrongly) that it is so blatant other parties are sure step in.

Alternatively, bystanders may believe that as long as the current target takes the punishment, they will escape – the better-him-than-me response.

Victims may internalise the issues for an extended period, take unnecessary leave, go off sick or quit; in which case, the organisation loses someone with the potential to make a much bigger contribution.

One response is to bottle things up. This can be dangerous. In Austria, years ago, a victim reportedly shot dead three of his tormentors, then turned the gun on himself.

Hopefully, remedial action will be taken long before tragedy occurs.

Researchers are clear that top management has to take responsibility and look out for tell-tale signs such as high level executive staff turnover.

One suggested remedy is an anti-bullying code of conduct signed by everyone.

It’s also vital to pierce the veil of secrecy. Victims and witnesses should be left in no doubt that they have a duty to report toxic behaviour.

Internationally, employee assistance programmes have been set up that offer victims psychological counselling, but what about the upper executive level echelons being bullied?

Clearly, these issues are taken seriously overseas. What about South Africa?

By Auguste (Gusti) Coetzer*

*Auguste (Gusti) Coetzer is Director, Executive Search, at TALENT AFRICA, an alliance of Korn Ferry.

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