Identify bullying at work – Part 1

November 7, 2022

As a manager or supervisor, is there bullying in your team? Have you been bullied at work, or been an uncomfortable bystander while a colleague is being bullied? Or could you be the bully? Naledi Mokoena, educational psychologist and lecturer, unpacks bullying in the workplace and how to address it. This is part one of a two-part newsletter – the second part tackles managing bullying at work.

Firstly, it’s important to note that bullying can occur culturally, economically, socially, racially, intellectually and sexually. It includes overt intimidation and mistreatment as well as covert micro-aggressions. What makes hurtful actions or offensive behaviour bullying is the frequency with which it occurs.

Naledi says that in South Africa, because of our diverse cultures, bullying may be a result of differences in our cultures, such as:

  • Differences in how respect is perceived between cultural groups
  • Expectations between generations; on how one should be treated, regardless of role and treatment of the other

Bullying commonly occurs due to differences between people from diverse races and social background – when people treat other people or groups as outcasts, or ‘other’, including in the language used to address people. Microaggression can be viewed as bullying when it is ongoing. Psychologist Derald W. Sue has written two books on microaggressions and defines it as, “the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs, and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations, disabled, or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Prevalence of bullying differs depending on industry sectors, geographical regions, and workplace hierarchy, explains Naledi. “From experience, a lot of it would relate to cultural differences in different parts of the country. In areas that are more community-based, the age power differential would be more apparent in subordinates versus people in higher positions. Industries with more hierarchical structures make it easier for bullying to exist. They will be more authoritative environments where ranking and status are important.”

The role of culture in an organisation is significant as this determines whether bullying is tolerated or even encouraged, or actively discouraged, penalised, and therefore prevented. “While we are seeing flatter hierarchical structures becoming the norm in many organisations, there are still spaces that are hierarchical. The industry that I would be most concerned about is the industrial sector, as these organisations have big power imbalance between managers and workers, and the education they have access to,” she notes.

“Bullying doesn’t come from nowhere, so think about what causes one to be a bully or be vulnerable to being bullied. You want bullies to feel they also have emotional support, so they should know which avenues for seeking support exist for them.”

Could you be a bully? If you’re unsure of the answer, ask yourself if you unnecessarily and with undue force exert your power, position, and/or popularity over other people.

“If you suspect you may be a bully, consider which parts of yourself need to be healed or worked on to get rid of bullying tendencies. Not everyone has the bravery or internal resources to go to a therapist, and in those cases, individuals may wish to ask a trusted colleague about better ways of dealing with certain situations or get help to develop their management skills. Wanting to work on your leadership abilities is not a sign of weakness, but a real sign of strength as you demonstrate your keenness to develop better people skills,” Naledi says.

Look out for part two, which addresses how to manage bullying and bullies.