I have been interested to read the coverage in the press over the week-end, firstly of Dennis Waterman’s comments to Piers Morgan and then Rula Lenska’s response to his comments. I would not draw a parallel between the behaviour that Mr Waterman admits to and work place bullying, but I think they occupy different positions ont he same spectrum and there is a common factor here which is of relevance to employers and employees alike, and that is the way in which a bully belittles the response of their victim.
I am sure that most of you reading this blog will, as a line manager or a colleague, have come across this situation. “A” apparently says something, once or many times, to “B” which B perceives as offensive, upsetting or insulting and eventually B complains. In response A spreads their arms wide in apparent disbelief and says, “But …
“… it was only a joke..”
“ …it was a term of affection…”
“….I didn’t mean anything by it…”
“….he/she is making a mountain out of a molehill…”
“ …he/she was seriously offended by that? Surely not!…”
or worst of all
“…he/she is imagining it. He/she is a fantasist/liar/unstable.”
Often there are no witnesses to this exchange, so at first glance we have a stale mate. In practice it is usually the person who has been offended/insulted who comes off worse. B feels embarrassed, undermined, devalued, probably doubts themselves, because the boundaries between well intentioned banter and cruel bullying can seem so unclear and a confident bully attracts support. This is particularly the case where the alleged bully represents the majority in the work place and the alleged victim the minority.
As an executive and as a non-executive I have several times been asked to hear a grievance from someone who believes themselves to have been bullied. All too often the decision is clear cut but on many occasions I wish I could wind back time and show the alleged bully the effect of the comments from the perspective of the alleged victim.
There definitely are some out and out bullies in the work place who would be completely untouched by this and whose motto appears to be “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” Sadly they are often supported by like-minded colleagues. This is contemptible behaviour. I will always have huge respect for an executive colleague of mine who removed a bully from his team despite that person having the support of the executive’s CEO and his predecessor in the role.
On the other hand everyone has blind spots about their behaviour and some see extreme behaviour as perfectly normal. For these individuals a prescription to walk a mile in their “victim’s” shoes would provide an invaluable insight, if they choose to see it. What do you think? Are all bullies irredeemable or do some just lack awareness?