Bullying in the Workplace: Why Sitting on the Sidelines is as Bad as Being the Bully

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Bullying.  It’s a big word.

We typically hear this word in relation to children.

Bullying in the workplace?  Yep, it exists.

The core dynamics of bullying in the workplace are often similar to bullying in the school yard.  There’s just an added level of sophistication thrown in.

I’ve seen bullying conversational dynamics so frequently, with so many different teams, that it has led me to realize how persistent and chronic of a problem this truly is in the workplace.

It’s really quite simple.

Bullying creates a toxic workplace environment.

It makes people hate their jobs.  Employees spend their days walking on eggshells, just trying to avoid reprimand.  People don’t dare share their creative ideas in this type of an environment. 

Bullying creates fearful robots who are at work simply to collect a paycheque.

Is this what you want within your organization?

If you answered no, then it’s time to get serious about workplace bullying.

Bullying in the Workplace: Why Sitting on the Sidelines is as Bad as Being the Bully

We’ve probably all been exposed to bullying in the workplace at least once in our career.  Even if you haven’t been the direct victim of a workplace bully, I’d be surprised if you haven’t at least observed a bullying dynamic at least once in your career.

You know what I’m referring to here.  Sometimes this appears as outright aggression, such as when a boss is yelling directly at an employee for a mistake they have made, using degrading language (“How could you be such an idiot?”, “You’re smart enough to know…”, etc.).  The person is attempting to shame the victim and make them feel not good enough. 

Other times, the bully uses sly, manipulative tactics to either make the person doubt their capabilities, or tries to instill fear to get the person to do what they want them to do.  This might look like a calmer conversation from the outside.  However, the bully uses fear and anxiety to manipulate the person into doing what they want.  This might be the case if a boss subtly insinuates that if you don’t do something they want you to do, you might not be up for that promotion you were hoping for, or could lose your job.

Whatever the style, the attempt to control others’ behaviour through such negative means is something that I have observed frequently in the consulting work that I do.  This type of communication always leads to a stressful work environment, with dissatisfied and unengaged employees.  Helping people learn different ways of conveying their needs is a core element of my work.

Even if you are not a victim of bullying at work yourself, if you are present but sitting on the sidelines while others are being bullied or berated, you still have a role in how these dynamics are playing out at work.

When you are faced with a moment when a fellow leader is bullying an employee, or when a colleague is being bullied, you have a choice to make in that moment.

You can choose to sit on the sidelines and to do nothing.  If this is the choice that you make, then you become a silent supporter of the bullying.  When we say nothing about workplace bullying, we silently condone it.

Or you can choose to step in and say something.

This is always the tougher choice, in the moment.

But if you want a bullying dynamic to stop, then people need to consistently stand up to the bully and let them know that their communication style is not ok.

Bullying in the Workplace: Why Sitting on the Sidelines is as Bad as Being the Bully

I experienced this myself many years back while in a meeting. My boss had asked me to give an evening workshop (outside of my regular working hours) on a date when I wasn’t available.  When I told him that I was unavailable on the requested date (but would be happy to do it another evening), he kept insisting that it had to be on the requested date.  No matter what I said, he simply insisted I needed to meet his request. 

He was not hearing my “no.”

Thankfully, one of my colleagues who was at the meeting jumped in and said, “I think what Lindsay’s trying to say here is…” and then she summarized and repeated what I was trying to say.

This interjection quickly calmed down what had become a reactive dynamic.  I did not yet have the skills to directly express to him that he was not respecting my “no”.  My colleague’s interjection was such a big help in shifting the dynamic and in helping the boss become aware that he was not listening to me.

Now, I’m not saying that if you are observing someone else being bullied that it is entirely your responsibility to jump in and save them.  That sets up some pretty unhealthy interaction patterns. 

It’s always the responsibility of the person involved in the bullying dynamic to learn the skills they need to manage these challenging interactions differently  They need to learn how to effectively speak up about what they do not like.  We can’t always rely on other people to jump in for us.

What I am saying is that if you are frequently observing these types of interactions in the workplace and are not saying anything, then I’d encourage you to reflect on your role within the dynamic.  Next time you experience this, take a few minutes afterwards to reflect on what you could do differently to shift the dynamic the next time it happens.

Because standing on the sidelines watching bullying take place is as bad as being the bully.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to navigate difficult conversations at work, you can go to lindsaylapaquette.com to download my free eGuide.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Why Is It a Problem If Everyone Always Agrees With You

Does Fear Hold You Back from Saying What Needs to be Said?

5 Tips to Reach a Consensus in Work Meetings

Lindsay Lapaquette

Lindsay Lapaquette

Lindsay Lapaquette, M.Sc.(A) works with middle managers who want to communicate authentically so they can effectively lead their teams without losing themselves. As a former Speech-Language Pathologist, Lindsay applies her expertise in the neuroscience of communication and connection to help managers foster an environment of trust and respect in their teams, so that everyone can bring their best selves to work.

Lindsay’s approach has been profoundly influenced by her work with First Nations organizations, her experience as a parent to two neurodivergent children, and the premature loss of both of her parents. These experiences have taught Lindsay great lessons about the power of excellent people skills that extend well beyond her professional expertise.

Lindsay Lapaquette

Lindsay Lapaquette

Lindsay Lapaquette, M.Sc.(A) works with middle managers who want to communicate authentically so they can effectively lead their teams without losing themselves. As a former Speech Language Pathologist, Lindsay applies her expertise in the neuroscience of communication and connection to help managers foster an environment of trust and respect in their teams, so that everyone can bring their best selves to work.

Lindsay’s approach has been profoundly influenced by her work with First Nations organizations, her experience as a parent to two children with pervasive mental health challenges, and the premature loss of both of her parents. These experiences have taught Lindsay great lessons about the power of excellent people skills that extend well beyond her professional expertise.

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Leadership communication skills to elevate team performance.

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