While nobody deserves to be a victim of workplace bullying, those who do become targets typically make three major mistakes in dealing with the issue.
Unbeknownst to them, these mistakes can have a significant impact on their mental health, as well as any chance they might have of getting a favourable outcome from their situation.
Before going on, it’s important to remember that not only is it possible to get a great outcome as a result of being bullied, it is actually probable. Growth is the outcome of trauma in the majority of cases according to landmark research in the area.
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.
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, this form of venting often sees any encouragement from your listener — such as the expression of empathy or a clarification question – as fodder for launching 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.
The people you may attempt to “share” your grievances 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 to the bully him or herself.
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.
And when it comes to writing it down, it’s important to consider 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, 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.
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.
The author of this piece runs a Workplace Bullying Mentoring Program, leading 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.
Please contact Beyond Blue if you need help with anxiety or depression on 1300 224 636.