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Social and Workplace Bullying

After writing a couple of articles on bullying among children, I heard from many adult readers with questions about bullying in their world. It can be a confusing and distressing topic to broach. We understand bullying in the context of childhood, when kids are still learning about what behaviours and responses are appropriate. But as adults, we are used to having agency, to having the ability to choose, particularly in social settings, with whom and how we interact.

Yet bullying doesn’t disappear with the school bell or diploma; we, as adults, simply get better at dealing with, avoiding or ignoring it if it does happen. Or our experiences expand, drawing our focus (as well as laws and HR policies) to seemingly bigger issues, like sexual harassment. Consequently, the phenomenon of adult bullying seldom gets discussed. But it can be a big problem, particularly within work or social contexts.

Professional or social, bullying is a power play and mask for personal insecurities. While workplace bullying is facilitated by an existing hierarchical set-up, in relationships with acquaintances, friends and family, bullying can create a new hierarchy where explicitly none exists. Bullying in the adult world takes the form of gossiping, consciously hiding information, mishandling the target’s documents/important belongings, name calling, making jokes at the expense of the target, and consciously not including them in important meetings, decisions or social plans.

My adult clients speak about friends who choose to ignore them when they make party plans, or who make last-minute changes in venue to ensure they will be excluded, or who belittle or ridicule them – disguised as all in good fun – at every social occasion. These actions are petty, and as adults, we might be better at recognizing that fact; but we can still find the experience painful.

These subtle manifestations are what make adult bullying so tricky to recognize and deal with. Sometimes the subtlety makes it difficult to discern a pattern of behaviour. In other cases, it allows others to perceive the bully in a positive light, as when coworkers perceive the bully as a helpful person.

A female client once described how her boss supported her publicly in meetings, but in private chose to ridicule and dismiss her ideas, even ones he had previously agreed on. A situation like this, when other people either don’t see the bullying or see it as acceptable, makes bullying difficult to counter and can cause a target to discount how much the experience eats into their self-esteem. The fear of being considered weak, too sensitive or not tough enough in many hypercompetitive corporate environments can sustain the problem.

In personal relationships, sometimes the fear of losing a set of friends or social status plays a role in how much bullying is tolerated. As in the workplace, we may not recognize the behaviour or, when we do, may not feel able to escape it, particularly without support.

Consequently, adults may experience guilt, shame, anger and frustration with themselves for allowing the emotional violence to continue. While these emotions are also experienced by bullied children, adults may experience the fallout more strongly, as they are more accustomed to having control over their lives and the way others perceive them. A client once told me that meeting his friends had started to seem like torture, as they would ignore his presence, but force him to pay for most outings. He felt not only exploited, but also humiliated and angry with his own tolerance.

Adult bullying also differs from the experience of children in one particularly insidious form: ‘gaslighting,’ which is uncommon among children. The term originated from the 1944 movie, Gaslight, in which a man manipulates his wife, making her doubt her own decision-making to such an extent that her confidence plummets and she is driven insane.

Gaslighting at the workplace includes scenarios where an employee is made to doubt his or her own judgment, memory, perception and even knowledge. Of course, as the movie suggests, gaslighting can also be experienced in intimate relationships.

Adult bullying is startlingly common. According to a survey of more than 1,000 Indian corporate employees, 55% said they had been bullied at work. The most common incident was being blamed for mistakes they didn’t commit, followed by instances wherein their comments were either ignored or ridiculed. (Unfortunately, there is no similar data on social bullying.)

This number is a big problem; bullying shatters people’s self-esteem and hits us in a very deep, fundamental place. On a personal level, it leaves adults feeling worthless and doubting themselves. It has also been associated with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks, which can lead people to avoid social interactions and develop a sense of helplessness or isolation.

On a professional level, bullying leads to increased absenteeism, lower concentration,  shorter attention spans and higher attrition rates. Workplace bullying has also been associated with psychosomatic illnesses such as migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure, as well as difficulty sleeping.

We need to acknowledge the problem before we can make amends as an individual, a society or organization. As David Maxfield, co-author of the books Crucial Conversations and Influencer, writes in the context of workplace bullying: “Silence is not golden, silence is permission.”

Before bullying becomes a habit, set appropriate boundaries and be assertive in addressing behaviour you find uncomfortable at the workplace and in social situations. Once an incident has occurred, document it with the support of seniors. If you happen to witness a colleague being ill-treated, don’t be a silent spectator and encourage such behaviour; bystanders have huge power in stopping the emotional violence.

In personal relationships, honest conversations about your feelings can help. Humour can help make your point, but keep things light as you set appropriate boundaries and assert yourself. Ultimately, it may be that choosing to limit interactions or reevaluate a relationships is the best course for you.

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