Bullying affects many more people than just the one being targeted for abuse. Even when a boss singles out only one employee as the office scapegoat, the entire team’s productivity suffers, according to a recent finding by Michigan State University researchers. The controlled study, led by Crystal Farh, involved both verbal and email abuse; the investigators found that not only did the affected employee’s work plummet as a result of workplace harassment, but team members who witnessed it or became aware of the bullying “descended into conflicts” and so they, too, became less productive.
In a related study, VitalSmarts researchers David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny discovered bullying is rampant in the U.S. workplace today. In fact, 96 percent of respondents to VitalSmart’s survey reported that they had personally been bullied at work, with most of the complaints (75 percent) attributed to emotional (rather than physical) abuse. Maxfield noted that abusers tend to get away with their bad behavior for years, especially if they hold senior management titles. The cost to the company, Maxfield concludes, is nearly $9,000 per year per victim – and he has found that most abusive managers, on average, have five or more people they like to push around or humiliate, so this is now a significant business expense.
The idea of “pushing” people to do better, rather than motivating them through positive feedback or incentives, is counterproductive. Even when we restrict the definition of office bullying to “verbal abuse, threatening behavior, intimidation, or humiliation that lasts for several months or more,” researchers have found that this behavior is four times more prevalent than other forms of workplace harassment. Whether the perpetrator is a screamer, a constant critic, a passive-aggressive person who relies on back-door gossip to undermine others, or the one who controls access to important contacts or workplace resources, they can quickly and effectively crush morale and productivity.
What to do?
Whether you are a victim of bullying or a witness to it in the workplace, you have options. You can quit or you can become a whistleblower – or you can model adult behavior and try, by your example, to help another person mature. Most practical is deciding how you want to be spoken to in a professional environment and working toward establishing a respectful relationship with colleagues and supervisors.
When someone oversteps your personal tolerance boundary, first do a quick reality check. Were other witnesses also feeling the person was out of line? If so, try to identify an underlying trigger, the actual disappointment, incompetence or carelessness behind the behavioral explosion. Honoring someone’s feelings is important, especially if you are about to question their response: “I realize that our team didn’t reach our target goal, and that’s both disappointing and unacceptable, but can we now have a more respectful conversation about how best to get our team back on track?”
If the bullying is habitual rather than a one-time blowup, your best option may be to initiate a formal complaint process. Describe the person’s “bad attitude” or “bullying” in clear behavioral terms (he/she shouted, kicked a chair, etc.). Don’t engage others in office gossip about the problem; instead, provide a list of dates and witnesses and leave it to human resources to intervene or investigate.
If every reasonable attempt to deal with a bully fails, the bottom line is that when there are no heroes to save you, it falls on you to save yourself. If the situation is toxic, and you’re truly helpless to change it, maybe it’s time to float a resume. Life is too short to stay where you are tolerated when you might go where you are celebrated.