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Do Organizations Bully?

From Maria Simpson’s Two minute Training Blog

I received an interesting update from Civility Partners last week on bullying, citing research showing that “education, government and healthcare are three industries where bullying seems to really thrive.”
  The general idea is that, “People are not predictors of workplace bullying, the organization is. Bullying only happens when the organization allows it to.”
The update goes on to say, “If your organization has one or more of the following, then you probably have bullying:
“1. Many employees who have worked there for a long time
“2. Many employees who are very smart (e.g., doctors, professors, engineers, etc.)
“3. A bureaucratic culture (e.g., lots of rules, regulations, policies and top down leadership)
“4. Leaders who focus on the bottom line at the expense of customers and employees
“5. Organizational change (e.g., downsizing, changing work teams, restructuring, etc.)”
Maybe I’m just being defensive. I have a doctorate, I’m a professor, I’ve spent my life in educational bureaucracies, and I’ve lived through more organizational change than I would have preferred. And I’m a mediator, so I see other sides of these contentions about bullying.
Items 1, 2 and 4 are about people, while 3 is about organizational culture, and 5 might be about organizational change or change in the external environment. People who have seniority might well bully the newbies, and people who are very smart might bully those they think are less intelligent — the worst kind of power play — but they might also become wonderful mentors. In the tech industry, where everyone is a genius and there is little bureaucracy (at least at first), many women have been driven out of the industry because of dreadful bullying especially on social media. And often leaders must put the bottom line before employees, but that is their job. Their organizations are not non-profits, and some decisions create painful results.
Now, a leader who revels in treating people badly is a bully, which is a power play, but not every leader revels in negative outcomes for employees in an effort to keep an organization alive. When I challenged the dean I worked for about a personnel decision related to one of my staff members based on personal issues rather than performance, he looked at me and said, “This is not an eleemosynary institution.” I had to look it up. It may have been a public university, but even he had a bottom line to meet. (It means charitable.)
Before going further, let’s define bullying. It’s behavior directed at a particular person, that is very personal and negative, continues consistently over time, and is designed to undermine or humiliate. I’ve experienced gender bias and more than a few jerks, but I’ve never experienced bullying in that sense of constant attacks, so although the organizations I worked in may have discriminated against women, included many very smart people and were highly bureaucratic, they were not inherently bullying organizations.
Bureaucratic cultures might generate some frustration if the organizational structure prevents people from being creative or advancing in their professions because of rules and regulations that take a one-size-fits-all approach, and maybe those people take it out on others as bullying, but the goal of the structure was to take emotional content out of decisions, especially in hiring, and try to create as neutral an employment policy as possible. Even that attempt can generate resentment, but again, that’s people bullying, not the organization.
When I managed a large staff of civil service employees in a university, resentment bordered on bullying when one of the staff members, a woman who had served in the Marines and could, in her own words, “put up a bushel of peaches and re-cover the couch” in a single evening, got a promotion. The point system used by civil service to calculate her rank and salary gave her extra points for her military service, which was seen as favoritism by others who had not served. That’s people working at generating resentment, not the culture or the bureaucracy. When I asked her how she felt about the comments, she laughed and said that, as a female Marine [and at that time in our culture], she’d heard a lot worse. 
If the bottom line is that, “People are not predictors of workplace bullying, the organization is. Bullying only happens when the organization allows it to,” then what exactly is an organization if not a collection of people? And if you remove the bully in the organization, that organization does not necessarily continue the bullying. It is the person who bullies, other people who allow it to continue probably because they don’t have the skills to challenge it, and managers who don’t stop it, probably for the same reason. A bureaucracy is a particular structure, and structures don’t bully; the people in it do the bullying and others allow it to continue. And even anti-bullying organizational policies can’t prevent bullying if people don’t.
So tell me, what do you think? Is it the case that “people are not predictors of workplace bullying, the organization is”? I’d love to hear from you.
Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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