September 14, 2007

Dealing With Bullies

...Some difficult people are merely minor irritants: Others learn to avoid them as much as possible, and the overall working environment is not badly compromised. But a person who targets others, makes threats (direct or indirect), insists on his or her own way all the time, or has such a hair-trigger temper that colleagues walk on eggshells to avoid setting it off, can paralyze a department. In the worst cases, this conduct can create massive dysfunction as the department finds itself unable to hold meetings, make hiring decisions, recruit new members, or retain valued ones. When I first got involved in helping department heads cope with such people, my colleagues and I used concepts and approaches we gleaned from studies of bullies.

The bullies I have encountered in the academic environment come in many forms, from those who present themselves as victims, all the way to classic aggressors who rely on physical intimidation. In academe and other settings populated by “knowledge workers,” one often encounters other kinds of bullies as well, including “memo bullies” (who send regular missives to a long mailing list) and “insult bullies” (destructive verbal aggressors).

Whatever their approaches, bullies are people who are willing to cross the boundaries of civilized behavior that inhibit others. They value the rewards brought by aggression and generally lack guilt, believing their victims provoked the attacks and deserve the consequences. Their behavior prompts others to avoid them, which means that, in the workplace, bullies are likely to become effectively unsupervised. I’ve seen secretaries, faculty members, and businesspeople who were so unpleasant to deal with that they were neither given the same duties as others in their environment nor held accountable for the duties they did hold.

Aggressor bullies fit the usual idea of a bully: They threaten to beat you up if you don’t give them your lunch money. Victim bullies, in contrast, demand your lunch money because of some harm they claim you’ve done to them.

While many workplaces have bullies, institutions of higher education may be especially vulnerable to them because of some of the distinctive characteristics of academe. First, bullies flourish in the decentralized structure of universities: the isolation of so many microclimates, from laboratories to small departments, creates many opportunities for a bully to run roughshod over colleagues. Then too, the bullies of academe typically manipulate the concepts of academic freedom and collegiality with flair. The propensity of bullies to misuse these central academic concepts only adds to the importance of being well grounded in those concepts yourself. If you have a firm understanding of what academic freedom is and what it is not, you’ll be better prepared to cope with those who try to distort the concept for their own ends.

Another reason people in academe are generally unprepared to deal with bullies is that bullies are relatively rare. They are what is known as “low-incidence, high-severity” problems: one in which the problems don’t arise very often, but when they do they are so serious that they can threaten the integrity of the environment.

For prevention of bullying, creating and maintaining an environment in which respectful professional interactions are expected and reinforced is the most powerful approach.

When unprofessional or uncivil conduct occurs in the work-place, it’s important to nip it in the bud. The tone of your response should be nonconfrontational: “Oh, I’m sorry, maybe we forgot to tell you that we don’t act that way here.” Dealing with the problem head-on and promptly is critical. If someone is verbally abusive to staff or threatens physical violence, the appropriate penalty must be imposed. Any other response only erodes the trust of those who work hard to do the right thing. Similarly, ignoring or tolerating inappropriate conduct in the workplace sends the message that the way to prosper is to misbehave

By C.K. Gunsalus, from:


Anonymous said...

Exploits of a Welsh UCU officer, whom I contacted for 'help', 'support', and 'advice'.

After submitting my resignation due to repeated violations of my rights at work, this Welsh UCU officer sent an e-mail to the head of the human resources raising doubts about the quality of the work that I was to deliver in the remaining period of my employment "Can we guarantee that the work that he will submit will be as good as....? ". Note how the Welsh UCU officer refers to himself and the HR manager by "We".

In another email, he discloses confidential information about my complaint to an external organisation. He tells the head of human resources in a surprised tone, "he already contacted someone external!" and "the last thing we want is another race discrimination case in the press".

Is there a possibility of closing the Welsh UCU offices or of preventing UCU from scamming members again.

Anonymous said...

The start of another academic year and the bullying has started again...

... no-one will help me.....

....I fight on.....

If one day my name stops appearing on this blog it will be because I can't bear it any longer.....

Aphra Behn