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Dr Sophie's Blog
Dr Sophie Henshaw is a work stress strategist, author and doctor of psychology with a particular interest in dysfunctional workplace relationships. For the latest articles, please refer to her latest blog site: www.freespiritedme.com
The 3 Biggest Mistakes That Targets Of Workplace Bullying Make (And What To Do About It)
Targets of workplace bullying typically make three major mistakes that unbeknownst to them, has a massive negative impact on their mental health as well as any chance they might have of getting a favourable outcome from their situation.
Before going any further, not only is it possible to get a great outcome as a result of being bullied, it is probable. Growth is the outcome of trauma in the majority of cases according to landmark research in the area by Tedeschi and Calhoun (1 & 2).
If you understand the mistakes you are likely to make and correct them as you go, your growth is likely to accelerate as you begin to develop a strategy that has you triumphing over trauma rather than coming undone.
The three mistakes to avoid are as follows:
1. Expressing Outrage Indiscriminately
When you're on the receiving end of verbal abuse and attempts to undermine you at every turn at work, it’s impossible to imagine why anyone would behave like that and how they could get away with it.
As a competent, kind employee who has empathy for others, the expression of outrage is of course understandable and normal; however, it is very difficult to listen to. I write more about this topic in my article on emotional dumping.
In this instance, what I call outrage is a kind of venting; it’s launching into a tirade that broadcasts all the intensely negative things you’re thinking and feeling in the expectation that someone (anyone) will listen, care about or rescue you but with no regard of the impact of the message on your listener.
Further, there’s a tendency to use any encouragement from your listener such as the expression of empathy or a clarification question, to relaunch into different aspects of the outrage, long after the natural end of the conversation.
When the desired response from one person is not forthcoming, you repeat your message over and over again to whomever you think will listen. This kind of rant is laden with adverbs, adjectives, judgements and various other shorthand terms that make perfect sense to you but no clear sense to anyone else.
The impact of the venting is that the listener will feel harangued, bored, overwhelmed, annoyed and manipulated, then switch off and wish you would just go away.
An illustration of what I’m describing is the statement I’ve created here below, variants of which have been delivered to me many times over the years either verbally or in writing. As a challenge, test yourself to see how many lines you’re able to read before tuning out:
“I’Ve been mobbed and victimized by a bunch of psychopathic, unethikal workplace bullies who think it’s funny to make sarcastic remarks and undermine me all the time then try to cover it up being cunning and manipulative and forcing people to admit to mistakes they did in the fiirst place just because they think I’m so stupid I won’t notice. They think they can get away with anything they like but they can’t just because they’ve manipolated the boss into thinking they’ve done such a great job on the joubilee project when it wasn’t their even work in the first place and he can’t even see the stupid games they’re up to because they crawl up to him all the time.”
The kinds of people you might “share” with are colleagues, friends and family. They are likely to become fed up with hearing the same thing repeatedly and perhaps even feel helpless because they care about you and there’s nothing they can do to help you.
However, it becomes more damaging when you express yourself in this way to important stakeholders such as the management team, HR, employee assistant counsellors or even, (God forbid), to the bully him or herself.
Those at your workplace who don’t have your best interests at heart could easily use your indiscriminate sharing against you whereas those professionals who genuinely are trying to help you are likely to feel drained and unclear about the actual sequence of events and other important information.
The remedy is to understand that your outrage is merely an expression of disbelief that you have been on the receiving end of bullying. Remember, not everyone thinks like you. Bullies exist; they were here long before you and will go on long after you’re gone and there’s not much you can do about that.
It’s important to stop being so shocked about the behaviour and instead start documenting each instance of inappropriate behaviour in a private diary that you keep away from the workplace.
Think about the impact on your reader...
Think about the impact on your reader. We as human beings think in pictures so you need to paint a picture that’s so clear it’s as if your reader / listener were watching the course of events unfold chronologically on a movie screen.
Be specific and meticulous in the details you record about what happened and when. Record dates, times, what was said (verbatim if you can remember it, or even better if you can make audio recordings). Delete all adverbs and adjectives and only describe the specific behaviours you witnessed.
Do not make inferences about what anyone else was thinking and feeling – these are private matters, about which you know nothing. Also avoid attributing meaning to the behaviours you witnessed; these are speculative, irrelevant to your account of events and most likely inaccurate.
Record your own thoughts and feelings under an “impact of events” heading and describe what happened to you as a result of the abuse. This may include how you perceived the events and any psychological harm you experienced as a result – such as panic attacks, difficulty sleeping and even medical complaints.
Being focused on an essential task such as this will help to calm your emotional state because you need to think clearly and rationally to record events in this much detail. It will also help to set you up with a powerful case against the bully or the organisation to use in a complaint to HR or even a court of law.
2. Too Much Information
An associated problem to this indiscriminate venting is divulging way too much information to those who could use that information against you. When you broadcast what you intend to do, then you are giving your company advanced warning of how to gear up to fight you.
In addition, beware of whom you speak to within your company. People gossip and before you know it, those whom you don’t want to know about your business, will.
Information is power. Repeat this adage to yourself like a mantra: “don’t explain, don’t complain.” Keep the element of surprise on your side and say no more than you absolutely have to. Save your valuable information for a worthwhile purpose, such as putting in a legal case against your employer.
3. Projecting Into The Future
Finally, the most common mistake that targets of workplace bullying make is projecting what will happen into the future. They imagine all sorts of horrible fates: destitution, bankruptcy, destruction of their career, reputation, never being able to find another job again and so on.
All this is driven by the fear of economic loss, which is what keeps them in a toxic work environment in the first place.
Firstly (and forgive me for being a little esoteric here), the future doesn’t exist. I guarantee that your whole life will unfold in the present moment and that whatever you think will happen, won’t.
When you try to control the uncontrollable (in this case the future, which doesn’t exist - that’s why it’s uncontrollable), it’s crazy-making, the only possible outcome of which is misery.
Life evolves as a series of choices we make in the present moment and in each moment we choose how we want to be, which determines what we create. If you project into the future, you then become highly anxious, which just escalates to greater levels of anxiety the more you focus on it.
Secondly, if you really are feeling this anxious, then the chances are you are smack-bang in the middle of a crisis and a crisis is the worst time to be making important life decisions.
The best thing to do in a crisis is to understand that it is time-limited, usually no more than three months and it will pass soon. Plan in time frames of an hour, a day and certainly no more than one week ahead.
Your job is to be responsive to what’s happening in each moment, which should mainly revolve around keeping yourself safe from harm and calming yourself as best you can.
This is a great time to be focused on the task of evidence collecting, which requires a cool head. Make sure your diaries are up-to date and your filing is impeccable.
At this point I often recommend that my (Australian) clients consider completing an application for an order to stop the bullying, which helps them to organise their thoughts. The form is F72 and is available from the Fair Work Commission website at: www.fwc.gov.au
Even though you may eventually decide not to lodge the form, it’s a great way to think through and organise what’s happening to you right now as well as reflect on the events leading up to this point. It can form the basis of an excellent case at law or as a complaint to HR. It can also help to clear your head around making those moment-by-moment important decisions.
Now it's Your Turn...
I would really love to hear about your experiences with workplace bullying, how it's affected you and what you did about it. Did you fall into the traps I described here?
Also, what would be the most important information for you to have right now if this is happening to you? You can respond in the comments below, or just answer this survey question here.
I'm always keen to provide you with the most relevant information and your feedback helps me to give you that. Thank you for reading!
In my Workplace Bullying Mentoring Program, I lead clients through a series of four sessions focused on restorative justice and recovery work that includes how to mount a powerful case against your employer. You can book online for Skype or personal sessions here.
1. Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring The Positive Legacy Of Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9 (3), 1-18.
2. Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 455-471.