Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Discourtesy And Contention At Work — Defining Terms

Defining terms: What is Bullying?

In keeping with the advice to not argue until we have defined terms, I want to clarify how I use the term bully, and my experiences with how others often use the term

Let me re-state that I acknowledge there are situations in which people suffer emotionally, mentally and sometime physically, because of the purposeful actions of coworkers and managers. I detest that kind of behavior and will take action to stop it. What I want to emphasize in this series is that using an emotional term like bully puts adult relationships at a juvenile or adolescent level and tends to reduce attempts to do anything positive about problems.

Another concern I have is that many people are amateur psychologists and lawyers at work, based on reading a few articles or watching TV. Whether they are discussing harassment, hostile work environments, stress, a toxic workplace, dinosaurs at work, or bullies, they embrace the workplace horror of the moment and swear they are dealing with it. It is similar to reading a list of symptoms and becoming certain that your cold is actually Zambalisian Swamp Fever.

Bullying behavior: A bully, by dictionary definition, is someone who is cruel to others who are powerless to stop the behavior. That is the definition I will use, rather than, as the author of an article on bullying wrote, “A bully is someone who makes you feel bullied.” Good grief!

Bullying behavior can include any number of tyrannical, mean or cruel actions:

  • Repeated taunting, ridiculing, threatening, destroying personal property, dirty tricks, creating serious work problems, malicious gossip, purposely creating stress, nervousness or tenseness, unrelenting criticism, yelling, accusing, unreasonable demands, and anything else that is cruel and done to exert power, out of spite or a sense of entitlement, or for the sheer enjoyment of it.

What is something other than bullying? On the Ask the Workplace Doctors site to which I contribute, we receive many, many letters from people who say they are being bullied. Sometimes when I read substantiating information I agree with the perspectives of the letter writer, even though I might not use that term. In many cases, follow-up information discloses a much different picture. I do not think the writers lied, but I do think they were using the phrase more as an insult than as an accurate descriptor.

  • The person being complained about is often unpleasant to deal with, but has no power over the person complaining and has never been personally intimidating.
  • The essence of the complaint about someone’s behavior is, “I don’t like it.”
  • There is a long-term feud in which both have taken part.
  • The person being complained about is a supervisor who has negatively critiqued the work of the person who is writing to us.
  • The writer has never asked the person to stop and never made a complaint to a supervisor or a manager.
  • The writer has been bullied in every job he or she has ever had and has never had a supervisor who was not a bully.
  • Frequently writers will use dramatic terms to describe something that has happened, but when I follow up with specific questions the facts are much less dramatic.

“My supervisor is a bully!” (He told me I had to get back to work instead of talking on my cell phone.)
“My coworker is a bully!” (She is snippy to me and responds rudely when I talk to her.)
“We have a group of office bullies!” (There are several gossips, but everyone listens to them and spreads what they say.)
“…screamed at me” becomes, “..talked in a louder tone than usual.”
“..berated me in front of everyone” becomes, “…corrected my mistake and people in other cubicles could hear  it.”
“Demeans everyone” means, “Tells me my work product has to improve.”
“…threatened me” becomes, “told me to mind my own business.”

Mental and emotional maturity. There is a level of mental and emotional maturity that is required to be effective at work. That maturity must extend to learning ways to deal with the wrong behavior of others. It seems to me that letting academicians or the media provide us with yet another inflammatory label will not help solve problems and will make bad situations worse. In further articles I will discuss a less dramatic way to view unpleasant behavior at work–a way that is more likely to result in positive actions.

April 8th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | no comments

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