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Hands up if you have ever been a victim of, or witnessed, bullying at work. If so, you’re not alone.

Earlier this year, a survey of employees at 131 UK companies1 revealed that a third of workers had been bullied in the workplace within the last three years. Nearly 75% said they had been bullied at some time in the past, or they had witnessed the harassment of colleagues.

Over in the US, October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month but as anyone who has been subjected to bullying knows, the behaviour can be devastating 365 days a year.

Snide comments, sabotage, false accusations of incompetence, even social shunning – these are just some of the behaviours that can mark out the workplace bully. It should be clear to anyone that this type of personality who has no place in a professional setting. And yet, the alarming conclusions of many studies suggest that bullying at work is so prevalent, it could almost be considered the norm.

Why does this happen and why does harassment at work, formal company policies notwithstanding, continue to be experienced by so many people?

I believe that there is still a stigma attached to naming and shaming bullies, due to people believing that, as adults, they should be able to “turn the other cheek” or deal with the problem on their own. That’s why campaigns to raise awareness of workplace bullying are so important; as is the role of managers, who must make their team feel comfortable about reporting bullying behaviour whenever they come across it.

But what if the problem IS your manager?

In my experience, I’ve found that leaders and supervisors who resort to aggressive or unreasonable behaviour are not terrible people, nor are they destined to be bad managers.

The tendency to bully, intimidate or coerce their employees often comes from a lack of confidence in their own leadership ability, or even their authority.

This can be the result of technically competent people being promoted to management roles, without paying attention to the new skills they’ll need to lead people. Fear of failure may be behind a bully’s behaviour, whether that’s a failure to meet targets or a failure to command the respect of their team.

Helping managers to understand the wide range of management tools available to them – in terms of practical measures, communication and relationship building – should in turn help them to view their staff as collaborators to be valued, not victims to be cowed.

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Leadership & management is about more than just decision-making. The best business leaders arm themselves with the information they need to make good decisions. Whether it’s meetings, interviews or team dynamics, there’s always something to learn, and somewhere to improve.

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Mark Fryer

20th October 2020