Myths and stereotypes about workplace bullying

Estimated read: 7 minutes 

When someone complains about bullying they may some hear some myths or stereotypes. If you find yourself faced with some of these excuses, this page might be helpful.

Key points:

  • The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy. Good managers manage, bad managers bully. People bully to hide their weakness and inadequacy, and to divert attention away from their incompetence
  • Targets of bullying tend to be independent, self-reliant, self-motivated, have no need to form gangs or join cliques, have no need to impress, and have little time for office politics
  • Bullying and managing have almost nothing in common. The objectives of management include motivating people in a sustainable way to perform tasks that the business needs and not using manipulation, power and control over someone

 

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Bullying is just tough dynamic management

The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy. Good managers manage, bad managers bully. People bully to hide their weakness and inadequacy, and to divert attention away from their incompetence. Many employers don't want to calculate the cost of low morale, poor productivity, poor customer service, high sickness absence, high staff turnover and frequent grievance and legal action that are a consequence of "tough dynamic management".

Bullying is really assertiveness

Assertiveness is confidence and directness in claiming one's rights or putting forward one's views. It is entirely possible to be assertive without being aggressive, dismissive, threatening, or disregarding others' rights, boundaries or values.

People who get bullied are "victims"

Bullying is something that people choose to do, but not something that people choose to have done to them. While it is true that bullying can render a person helpless or passive, it can also inspire an assertive response.

Another reason to avoid the term "victim" is that it is associated with "victim mentality". This can be used as part of a bullying strategy to undermine and discredit the person experiencing bullying.

It takes two to tango

The tango is a beautiful dance performed by two consenting, cooperating participants. Bullying is a one sided disgrace, enacted by the bully on another person without their consent. Suggesting that the person being bullied participated willingly is another way of trying to justify the behaviour behind the bullying.

Victims are weak and inadequate

Bullying and abuse always involves the bully abusing some form of power, which could be physical, political, financial, hierarchical, situational etc. People abuse their power to gain something that they probably should not otherwise have had. They do this because they are giving in to some weakness on their part. The abuse of power is a sign of weakness, impatience, incompetence, immaturity, inadequacy, the lack of a moral compass and so on, on the part of the bully.

Victims are not team players

Targets of bullying tend to be independent, self-reliant, self-motivated, have no need to form gangs or join cliques, have no need to impress, and have little time for office politics. Usually this makes them central, valued team members. One intentional effect of bullying is to isolate targets from their colleagues, and the stress of being bullied, with no support from colleagues, can make targets withdraw from associations they might otherwise have maintained.

Victims are unstable and unhealthy

People who observe targets as "unstable" are seeing the destabilising effect of the stress that comes with bullying. It is disrespectful, insensitive and offensive to suggest this.

Victims take employers to court because it's easy money

Seeking legal redress is very expensive, financially and emotionally. Employment Tribunal cases in the UK can easily take a year to complete, and if there is an appeal, it could be four or five years. Personal injury cases can last ten years.

If a victim is bullied, why don't the employers side with them?

In most workplace bullying, the bully holds a position of hierarchical power over the target. When the target complains about her boss's conduct, the boss explains it away as being normal management and, in the process, paints the target as an awkward, poor performing, mentally unstable drain on the organisation. Other managers tend to believe the bully by default, simply because of their rank. A worker's contract is with the employing organisation, and it's the employer's duty to afford each worker a safe working environment, with a mutual bond of trust and confidence, to give efficacy to the employment contract.

It's just a personality clash

A personality clash is where two people of equal rank or status or value or power don't see eye to eye. Bullying consists of a pattern of frequent, persistent, isolation, exclusion, undermining, discrediting, setting up to fail, etc, toward a person who the bully has disempowered and disenfranchised. HR departments nevertheless frequently write off bullying as a "personality clash".

There's a fine line between tough management and bullying

Bullying and managing have almost nothing in common. The objectives of management include motivating people in a sustainable way to perform tasks that the business needs. The objectives of a bully are power, control, domination and subjugation of others, achieved largely through manipulation, deception and abuse of power.

You'll never be able to prove bullying

This is a message of discouragement given out by the most arrogant abusers, who bully behind closed doors without witnesses. "No-one will ever believe you", they say. Every form of abuse, including bullying, involves a perpetrator, an action and a target, and the action is always recordable in some format.

Bullies have high self-esteem

People with high self-esteem have no need to bully. People with high self-esteem manifest their high self-esteem in having only positive interactions with others. Bullies only have positive interactions with the people they think they need to impress, and negative interactions with everyone else; negative interactions are a hallmark of low self-esteem.

Victims have problems with people in authority

It is not uncommon for those experiencing bullying to be accused of having an issue with authority. This may be done to try and discredit the person being bullied, distract or divert the attention from the bullying. 

This content was developed by The Tim Field Foundation, based on the work of the late Dr Tim Field.

This page was updated on July 2021.

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