Workplace Bullying Is A Sign Of Incompetence

I have been around the traps long enough to have witnessed some abhorrent behaviour in organisations. Some of which has been directed towards me, and some of which I have seen from the sidelines. Interestingly though, despite the trauma that I have seen caused, very few people have submitted a complaint for bullying. Moreover, those who have made a complaint have been told after several months of further distress the complaints were not substantiated. The behaviour they had experienced did not fit the definition of bullying, which is:

“repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers, that creates a risk to health and safety”.

The matter is then promptly dropped, and business continues as normal. However, just because the behaviour wasn’t classified as bullying it does not mean that it was not disgusting and distressing. The result though is that the complainer is made to look like the troublemaker and the person behaving badly walks away probably even more convinced that the person who complained is just a troublemaker.

I have seen this scenario play out too many times to think it is just a coincidence. And lately, when I have heard of yet another scenario, it really got me thinking. What is at the heart of bullying? Where does it stem from? Of course there are the technical definitions that include such concepts of power imbalance and lack of cultural consideration. But I have come to the view that bullying is a sign of incompetence. I actually don’t care whether there is a formal claim or not, or whether the complaint is substantiated or not. The fact that someone feels bullied for me is a sign that there is incompetence in at least one, if not all of the following areas.

Emotional Mastery

It is generally the case that bullying is a result of someone in power feeling threatened or intimidated. They act with fear and use it to disable the source of the threat. Here’s the thing though. If the person in the position of relative power was aware of their emotions and was able to work with them, they would be less likely to act from a place of fear. If the person had emotional intelligence, they would understand the messages that the fear was sending them and see it as an opportunity for growth. As outlined by Jim Dethmer in his book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, fear is a signal that there is something new we need to face, know or learn. They are able to use the fear signals arising to ask themselves the question about how this emotion is calling them to grow.

Instead, the person who is not a master of their emotions may not even be aware of what is going on inside of them during the interactions. Even if they are aware, they don’t have the emotional intelligence or maturity to seek growth and learning from the emotion. They let the emotion of fear and anger be the master of them, and not the other way around. The result is that not only the people involved suffer, but the whole organisation loses the chance to learn and grow from that one person’s emotional insight.

Interpersonal Communication

Closely linked with the lack of emotional mastery is the incompetence shown by bullies in the field of communication. Without the care or ability to truly listen to others and to tailor communications to the audience, interactions become a matter of ‘my way or the highway.’ Effective communication becomes the other persons problem instead of a dual responsibility. The other person’s frustration or passion is misread as aggression. I have heard leaders say in the past “I have tried to talk to him/her but….”. But has the person actually tried to listen? Have they tried to paraphrase what they are hearing? Have they engaged a third party to assist the communication process if it appears to need help? These are all the responsibilities of a person in a leadership or managerial role and if the situation gets to a point of bullying, then I would argue they have not fulfilled their communication responsibilities.

Managing Their Own Ego

True leaders understand that leadership is not about them but about those they serve. It is not about exalting themselves but about lifting others up. ~ Sheri L. Dew

I think this quote says it all. Those people in positions of power who use their power to push others down are not only incompetent, but cruel. It really does speak volumes about their level of insecurity and the lengths that they are willing to go to cover it up. Acting out to harm others shows clearly that the person is more concerned with how they are perceived by others then doing the best for their team, and the whole organisation. It shows a closed mind and preoccupation with either keeping their position or being promoted — a preoccupation they place well over the care and concern for those around them. With every promotion of someone who places their own ego over their people you are sending the signal that this behaviour is rewarded, and so the problem is further embedded into a toxic culture.

Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

HR Systems

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that most employees believe their HR units are there to support management, not them. After all, the management and leaders of the organisation have the power to punish and remove the HR people too, which creates a real conflict for them. I have witnessed many times the HR unit ‘siding’ with the person in power and actually fuelling conflict rather than helping to solve it. This is not only incompetence but is downright dangerous for the health and wellbeing of everyone involved.

The HR units are at the front line of making sure the duty of care to the employees is enacted, and at building the capabilities of both parties. By blindly siding with those in power they lose the opportunity to help them build greater emotional mastery and communication skills. They lose the chance to help the organisations leaders become even better leaders, and potentially only reinforce the person’s view that their approach is ‘right’. They also lose the great opportunity to teach both parties how to communicate better, share ideas and feelings and build even stronger working relationships. By siding with person in power, the HR unit has though secured their own position, and perhaps that is all they really care about?

Are Your People Your Greatest Asset?

I know this is not true for everyone, and yes, I am being a bit controversial. But I have seen too many hearts broken and lives shattered not to think that there is something incredibly and systemically wrong with organizations where people feel bullied. And at the end of the day it does not matter how you define it — when an employee feels unsafe there is a direct impact on their health and wellbeing, and the organizations leadership has failed in their duty of care to their people.

Perhaps if we begin to acknowledge and address the underlying incompetence that is at the heart of bullying then maybe we can begin to believe our leaders when we say, ‘our people are our greatest asset.’ Until such time, they are just more shallow words.

One thought on “Workplace Bullying Is A Sign Of Incompetence

Add yours

  1. Awesome post, Belinda! I especially love the Emotional Mastery part where you say, “If the person had emotional intelligence, they would understand the messages that the fear was sending them and see it as an opportunity for growth.”

    I didn’t suffer workplace bullying until I was close to 40 years old and, to put it mildly, it was distressing. Luckily for me, because I’d already been bullied in middle and high school, I knew what to expect as bullies of all ages employ basically the same tactics. Only adult bullies are more sophisticated with theirs. I was able to stay a few steps ahead of the bullies and eventually walk away from the job confidently and on my own terms. However, that doesn’t happen very often. During my time in this toxic workplace, I saw many others bullied and they ended up losing their jobs, and some, their entire careers. Thank you so much for sounding the alarm on an issue that isn’t addressed enough.


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