2nd March 2022

Jessica Strick from ecoPortal calls out five behaviours doing psychological harm

In the movies, we always know who the bully is. They’re either aggressive, loud and physically threatening (with a particular vendetta against those who wear glasses) or they’re the Queen Bee, Mean Girls-style, judgemental and manipulative. They repeatedly antagonise our protagonist, and, in a beautiful narrative arc, the protagonist always fights back and wins. The bully crawls home, tail tucked between their legs. We celebrate a simplified display of good prevailing over bad.

For some strange reason, Hollywood doesn’t always paint the most accurate or realistic picture of bullies, especially the intricate bully-victim dynamic that permeates the adult world and we don’t always know who the bully is. Sometimes their bullying is covert and inconspicuous. Sometimes, it’s not that easy to stand up to their behaviour and put things right.

Let’s take the workplace, for example. Although it happens, outward primarily physical aggression is rare, as it’s such an overt sign of bullying that immediate consequences are likely imminent after an altercation. What tends to be more common are subtle micro-aggressions that deliberately break down an individual’s self-esteem and confidence.

It’s critical that we stay vigilant and learn to recognise the more subtle signs of bullying. This kind of behaviour has no place in a healthy working environment, with a culture that fosters both kindness and respect. It comes as no surprise that bullying has significant effects from a wider cultural level within an organisation, and at an individual level.

Many of these subtle behaviours hamper an individual’s need to belong and feel socially accepted. By bullying someone, often the victim feels like they’re an outcast and struggles to socially fit in - and the need to belong is a fundamental human psychological need, much like we need food and water physically. Subtle bullying often induces shame and loneliness, leaving the victim feeling isolated and confused.

At an individual level, being bullied or harassed by your peers is detrimental for both mental and physical health. We all share a basic need to feel both physically and psychologically safe at work.

1. Impossible, inconsistent, or constantly changing expectations

If your manager’s expectations are constantly on the move, or frequently set at an unattainable level, this is a subtle form of bullying.

While setting high goals, and expecting excellence from your team is an essential part of pushing people to the next level, consistently setting unrealistic expectations for an individual’s work breadth, experience and skill set, is unfair.

Setting unrealistic targets creates a highly pressurised environment for a worker and leaves them feeling chronically stressed and can even lead to burnout. Often, these scenarios occur in public sector companies, where resources are limited, with staff shortages and higher workloads. But by setting unrealistic targets, staff will feel cornered, overwhelmed and will be far more likely to leave, only contributing further towards the problem.

2. Mood swings

A mood that changes suddenly is another difficult trait that puts others on high alert. If you work alongside someone who’s known to explode or get grumpy within seconds, you’ll feel like you’re walking on eggshells around them, and have to tiptoe gently to avoid upsetting them.

For a conducive, productive environment that innovates and improves, the workplace needs to be a safe space, where advice, constructive criticism and differing opinions are freely shared, not met with irritability or unnecessary frustration. Furthermore, while employees are hired for their top talent, everyone needs to give their peers a margin of error (within reason) - sometimes, people are human and miss a line of communication, forget to add a final touch, or struggle more with a task than usual.

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3. Isolation/exclusion

Colleagues that deliberately and constantly leave out individuals on their team are engaging in another subtle form of bullying. Excluding an individual deliberately will make them feel socially isolated, and threaten their sense of belonging in the workplace. Sometimes, this behaviour is used deliberately as a drawn out process to eventually cause an individual to quit, without firing them.

Each employee has a right to feel like they’re accepted and belong in a workplace. Isolating someone is a nod to the Queen Bee high school behaviour and is unacceptable.

This type of behaviour might look like frequent exclusions to the local cafe for lunch, or organising Friday evening drinks but purposely not inviting particular people. It could even manifest within the workplace itself, conveniently ‘forgetting’ to invite a worker to an important general meeting which would be in their - and the company's' - best interest to attend. Consequently, those who’ve been excluded might struggle to feel as though they belong and hinder their own personal motivation at work, as well as play negatively on their mental wellbeing.

4. Embarrassment or humiliation in front of others

From time to time, people will make mistakes in the office. It’s normal, it’s expected and quite frankly - it’s human. Indeed, many times a mistake can lead to a happy accident and become the driving force for great improvements in other areas (but that’s a discussion for a different day).

However, if someone’s made a mistake and their manager or colleague berates them excessively in front of their team members or clients, this is another sign of bullying. This can incite feelings of shame or worthlessness in someone.

Another way embarrassment or humiliation might be used in the workplace is in the form of a ‘joke’, or repeated banter, which may seem innocuous to the perpetrator but not the victim. In this case, the victim is often told to ‘lighten up’ and stop taking things so seriously. In particularly bad environments, this degree of ‘banter’ might be justified as part of a fun-loving culture, that deep down, has been built around embarrassing others to feel included.

Embarrassment or humiliation can look like excessive criticism in a group setting, where an individual is called out personally and belittled in front of others, particularly in a group meeting scenario. Any situation that induces shame in any person is not conducive to good mental wellbeing. Shame has huge negative effects of anyone’s self-esteem, and embarrassment or humiliation

5. Excessive impatience

Similar to frequent mood swings, excessive impatience is another bullying behaviour. If someone cuts in during a discussion over someone else, frequently interrupts others, or display obvious irritability in their body language (foot tapping, excessive sighing, eye-rolling), they’re engaging in another form of bullying. This behaviour undermines other people and indirectly communicates that their opinions or approaches are not adequate or worth hearing.

While long meetings and arduous discussions can sometimes become exhausting and tiring to listen to, a consistent display of impatience and irritability is not acceptable. Each person in a discussion has the right to feel valued and respected - whether they’re a fresh-out junior intern, or a CEO. Of course, not everyone might contribute the same degree of knowledge or experience, but that doesn’t mean a workplace discussion should be a place that discourages opinion sharing or learning.

Final words:

Frequent micro-aggressions are a dangerous, manipulative form of bullying that targets individuals and ostracises them.

Workplace bullying as we experience it might be a far cry from the ‘sticks-and-stones’ approach commonly reckoned by Hollywood tropes; but indeed, is no less harmful. With repeated subtle bullying behaviour, the victim often second-guesses the severity of their experience, leaving them feeling confused, anxious, and isolated.

Without a doubt, becoming aware of the inconspicuous bullying behaviours can help start some much-needed conversations and help your team work together to create a more resilient internal culture, where everyone feels psychologically and physically safe.

Want to know more about how to create a better health and safety culture? View ecoPortal smarter safety videos.