A Dance of Death

November is Beat Bullying Month. This blog post was contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, a Reader in Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology.

From minor family squabbles to nations at war, conflict is a universal fact of life, and one of its most potent features is the bully.  Last month, the CIPD journal People Management ran with the headline “Are you a bully?”, and offered a Cosmo-style quiz to ascertain what kind of bully you might be (there are, apparently, four types). Glib answers for difficult questions have clearly lost none of their appeal.

As David Cameron condemns Unite’s tactics at Grangemouth as “bullying” (they took a life-size rat to a leafy suburb to protest at the house of a director of Ineos, the Grangemouth operator), Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey dismisses “Bullingdon Bully Cameron” as whipping up media hysteria and using bullying allegations to deflect attention from the reality of closing down factories.  This is a long way away from kids stealing dinner money, or your boss undermining your confidence.  Are we still talking about the same phenomenon?

To raise awareness of bullying, subtlety had to fall by the wayside – simple messages were important, and it clearly worked.  Awareness around bullying, both in schools and at work, has increased considerably over the past two decades. This week sees the launch of anti-bullying month for schools. On the 7 November it is National Ban Bullying at Work day. Awareness, yes. But understanding?

National Ban Bullying at Work Day is held annually in memory of Andrea Adams and Tim Field, two pioneers who devoted their lives to eradicating bullying. Not so often mentioned is Adams’ co-author, Tavistock psychotherapist Neil Crawford, who also died a decade ago. Crawford brought the subtleties of psychoanalytic thinking to the bullying at work field. “I feel I was robbed … my confidence disappeared”, states a victim of bullying I talked to recently. Stealing is at the core of bullying. Envy, Crawford argues, involves identifying with the goodness of others and stealing it. Bullies are insecure, and feed off others, sucking the life out of them.

Bully Blog Nov13

Danse Macabre, by Alex Cree

Being robbed, feeling bereft, death. Dr Sheila White, who continues and reshapes psychoanalytic thinking in the field, gives us the notion of the dance of death to understand workplace bullying.  She describes it as a perverse and pernicious form of projective identification, occurring around organizational vacuums and structural fractures. Individuals, seeking recognition, get trapped in ‘a dance of death’. Adult bullies do not have secure feelings about who they are, and through envy and the quest for recognition, hook into others and won’t let go. Her book gives in-depth insights into the core issues of workplace bullying from the perspectives of the individuals involved, their interpersonal relationships, the group dynamics and – crucially – their organizational contexts.

Bullying will only occur if the organizational context is suitable for bullying. “Just as plants only grow if the conditions of the soil, temperature, light levels etc are favourable, so bullying will only occur if an organizational context fosters a bully’s need to bully”, argues White.  So what are these unsuitable organizational contexts? White describes organizations that have vacuums where there is no support for individuals or groups. She also highlights structural fractures, where job descriptions are unclear and communication is poor or inconsistent; expectations of performance are unrealistic and there is an over-identification with targets/quotas. Often, management are unaware of how negative projections filter down the organization, generating the potential for dysfunctional behaviour along the way.

Workplace bullying is costly: increasingly petty conflicts are being registered as formal complaints and, in no time, legalities take over and costs spiral out of control. Preventive actions and interventions need to be based on a sound knowledge of the deeper issues which foster bullying scenarios.  White’s book makes a major contribution to this understanding, and is an essential read.

Dr Sheila White’s book is launched at Birkbeck on 21 November.Booking is essential.

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Beyond Bad Apples: Bullying at the BBC

This post was contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, a Reader in the Department of Organizational Psychology.

The Respect at Work Report states that ‘uncomfortable levels’ of bullying are being reported at the BBC. Uncomfortable to whom, we might ask.  A corporation that prides itself on people being “our greatest strength” has to cope with increasing levels of criticism of the way it treats and protects its employees. Covering the period between 2005 and 2012, bullying behaviour appeared to go unchallenged by senior managers, with certain individuals “seen as being untouchable due to their perceived value to the BBC”.

BBC director general Tony Hall wants “zero tolerance of bullying”, and emphasized he wants to get rid of the culture of fear, and “get employees to speak out” about bullying. Following in the footsteps of many a Chairman before him, he will focus on changing behaviour from the top. Professor Stale Einarsen from the University of Bergen suggested in a recent lecture at Birkbeck that bullying had little to do with good or bad leadership – it was those leaders that do nothing and create a vacuum that really damage the culture in organizations. People are not huddling in corners in fear of a perpetrator out there, but they are de-spirited and humiliated by ever demanding working practices. For this reason, a policy to ‘get rid of bullies’ in organisations will only have a limited effect, and will not address these organisational issues. Bullying is arguably far more often the system and one’s role in it than individual personalities, stated Prof Einarsen.

It strikes me that Lord Hall is somewhat disingenuous. Employees have spoken out, they may perhaps not have been heard. Bectu (the media and entertainment union) reported as early as 2008 that the culture at the BBC was one of fear. Why was this not picked up then? The Savile Enquiry gave rise to this current report, but it seems that what is being reported goes way beyond some individual culprits and bad bosses. The 500 or so voices of these employees point to something far more akin to institutionalised bullying. If the link is made here with findings on racism, for instance in the MacPherson Report , it becomes clear that it is not just about a few bad apples that need to be removed from the organisation, but the very practices (from recruitment and reward to ‘how things are done around here’) that need to be scrutinised.

The BBC is not alone. My research since 1998 has consistently shown that to stop bullying it’s not personalities but the systems and policies that need to be tackled – many of these are designed to cut costs, not to preserve dignity nor foster respect. Within these systems, managers are put under pressure to increase staff performance, reduce overtime, and cut costs to meet their targets – how employees experience this process is not top of the organizational agenda. BBC employees, like many others elsewhere, feel their respect at work is eroded by being kept in the dark, being serially restructured, not being consulted in earnest, feeling that sauce for the ‘grafting’ goose is definitely not sauce for the ‘talented’ gander. Telling the author of the report that the above is bullying corresponds closely to Bectu’s findings, and indeed the NUJ comments on institutionalised bullying.  Yet BBC responses to the report’s findings seem designed to tackle only bullying of the inter- and intra-personal kind.

Part of coping with bullying is challenging the organisational systems that in an ever increasing, unrelenting fashion erode the self-esteem and self-efficacy of an entire workforce – as evidenced by this recent report. What can be done to stop this organisational bullying and change a culture of fear? Arguably, the answer would be to question all organizational policies that are in place, and evaluate these in terms of their appropriateness with a dignified working life, balancing values with costs. So not just re-writing your bullying policy as suggested, BBC, if you really want to tackle these issues.

Dr Andreas Liefooghe has recently completed an ESRC Seminar Series on bullying at work called Vulnerable Selves, Discipling Others, footage available on line. He is currently analysing data from the first pan-ASEAN research study into bullying at work.

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