Understanding what bullying is (bullying part 1)

If I asked you what is bullying – I wonder what you would reply?  We often think of bullying as something which affects children – right? But it is also a real problem for many adults in the workplace. Knowing how to recognise bullying is the first step to taking action, to say “It is not OK”.  Knowledge will give you confidence to know what is not alright in a professional context so that you can do something about it.


Trudy Ludwig (a children’s book author) offers a nice distinction and talks about how bullying is not just about someone being rude(which might be a one off, unplanned slight which offends or hurts you) and nor is it being mean(doing or saying something deliberately to hurt someone else as an isolated event) (http://www.trudyludwig.com/author_bullybasics.html). I am sure most of us have experienced rudeness and meanness at some point.  And I am not saying they are OK either – but bullying is something different again: bullying is a deliberate, intentional and sustained aggressive behaviour, aimed at a person (or group) which is deemed to be unreasonable and includes an imbalance of power.    Let’s look at that – what is it in practice?  It may be a range of behaviours such as: physical (but there are usually clear rules to prevent that in the workplace); verbal; intimidation; humiliation; ridicule; unfair or constant criticism; threatening behaviour; unfair allocation or distribution of work; withholding information; undervaluing contribution; withdrawing support; or even ignoring and socially isolating someone (this list is not mean to be exhaustive, but rather to show the range of behaviours which come under a definition of bullying).  I wonder if you are surprised by that? Or, whether knowing that – you suspect you might be being bullied at work – and if so does that knowing empower you to take any different action?


Let’s look at an example of someone who faced this in a workplace and thought it was just a difficult work environment:

“I got stuck in a downward spiral.  I questioned the number of hours I was working. I was being asked to take on more work and had logged roughly 75 hours a week for the last four months, even though I am contracted for 37 and a half.  I was willing to take on the new work if something else was taken away, but got told ‘you are a senior member of staff – we expect more of you’. But I couldn’t do more, so I said no.  Then the bullying began.  In some ways it was quite nebulous and hard to tackle (a ‘he said she said’ type scenario), but the next few months saw my job disintegrate as existing roles were taken from me as punishment and I was gradually isolated, removed from meetings, not even included in any of the new developments.  I didn’t realise that was bullying, ‘til I sought advice…  It was the isolation that was hardest for me to cope with – harder than being shouted at: I could have argued my case for that. But to just be ignored, cut out – that was the worst form of bullying I could have experienced as I am a people person, a contributor, an activator, I needed that connection.  I was staggered at how deeply it affected me, I started to doubt my own ability – when really it was not about my capability at all. I really struggled to go on …”


This is a moving real life story of a strong, powerful women, in a senior position, who experienced an unexpected form of bullying. Indeed it was only through seeking support she recognized it for what it was.  Knowing that helped her to begin to plan how to respond.


So what is important to know?


There are three important elements to bullying:

  • The action is intentional
  • The actions are sustained over time and
  • There is an imbalance of power at play


If you are experiencing difficulties in the workplace, just assess any behaviours against those criteria and if you can tick yes to all three – seek support – you might be experiencing bullying.  What is important to know here is that you do not have to cope with it alone and you do not have to tolerate it in a workplace. 


As the story and the literature shows us bullying can have devastating impacts on an individual, from threats to identity; lowered self esteem; stress; depression; lack of energy; difficulty sleeping; impact on diet; emotional burnout; health symptoms, even leading to suicide attempts.  It is commonplace that people will even blame themselves and get trapped in a downward spiral; getting more tired and more stressed and feeling even more helpless – so that they will be even less able to take steps to get themselves out of the situation in an appropriate way.


The good news is there are ways to change the cycle – take back control and put a line in the sand and say “enough is enough” “this is not OK”.  We will be sharing another article which will give you some simple steps to saying No to Bullying and putting yourself on a new path to protecting yourself again at work.

4,696 thoughts on “Understanding what bullying is (bullying part 1)