Civility at work takes two

Blog - Civility at work takes two

Robert Aurbach | Published: September 12, 2017

The terms of reference for a recent Parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying reference a Productivity Commission estimate, stating that bullying costs the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion annually. The toll is staggering and begs for a response to the question, “What can be done?”

Readers of this column would be aware that I am no fan of the term “bullying”. It carries the implicit labels of victim and perpetrator, which are disempowering and binary – you either are bullied or you’re not, either the victim or not.

The instances of the legitimate use of the term “bullying” are significant and unacceptable. Unfortunately, the meaning of the term has expanded from its original meaning* to encompass virtually any and all disagreeable behaviour involving two or more people. The slippery definition encourages more people to define themselves as “victims” - with predictable consequences.

I don’t think the label of victim helps anyone recover from an unpleasant event or pattern of interaction. In most cases, the interaction is not quite as black and white as all that.

Outside the workplace, we learn that most relationship dynamics are ones in which both parties have a role to play.

Even where not intended, the occurrence of incivility in the workplace is not much different in kind than the occurrence of a spat between friends – “it takes two to tango”.

I read a short “ExpertInsight” from the Mayo Clinic wellness newsletter “Embody Health”. It was written by an American psychiatrist named Dr Greg Couser who talks sense in a world that has lost perspective on the subject of “bullying”. It makes sense that he has a practical outlook – he’s the head of Employee Assistance Programs at Mayo Clinic, Rochester.

Greg offers the following observations:

First, your enjoyment and success at work generally reflect the quality of relationships at the workplace. This just seems to be common sense. It’s much like that at home or with your friends. Why would it be different in the place where we spend the most hours of social interaction during our work week?

Second, it’s not that hard to improve workplace relationships:

  • Keep shared goals in mind
  • Solve problems together
  • Respect each other’s viewpoint and allow for disagreement\
  • Accept others as they are
  • Set and respect boundaries, especially about physical space, interruptions and not giving too much information
  • Give credit where it’s due, and
  • Listen and acknowledge

Not all of these suggestions are easy.

Greg offers citations to support most of them, but no authority is really necessary. The question is whether this general advice for relationships is of value when someone is being uncivil at work. My intuition is that the answer is “yes”.

The reason is my belief that most bad behaviour in the workplace is not intended to harm. I believe, based upon my experience, that there are three broad groups of people who behave badly in the workplace.

The most common group is made up of people who have no idea that they are causing harm and no intent to do so. Cultural differences, differences in what people feel is appropriate based upon their upbringing or experience elsewhere, or just vanilla variety unintentional insensitivity or momentary failure to pay attention to the impact on others falls into this category.

This is the one of which I occasionally been guilty. Most of us have been, at one time or another. The label of “victim” and “perpetrator” doesn’t seem to fit.

The second group is the people who are acting out of fear or feeling overwhelmed.

I had a supervisor once who felt herself to be under constant scrutiny about the performance of her team under circumstances where there were insufficient resources to properly do the work being asked of us. There were times where she got loud, abrupt, demanding and judgmental, and they all closely followed negative contact with people creating the pressure.

This is the “stuff flows downstream” phenomenon that many of us have experienced from time to time. It also happens amongst co-workers when one feels threatened by the other in some way. Again, people behaving badly, but no intent to victimise. Rather, a poor situational response to stress. It might be that both parties are “victims”.

Finally there is a small group that consistently has insufficient monitors on their workplace behaviour. This includes practical jokers, people who spread malicious rumours, people who lose their tempers and (very rarely) the truly cruel person.

Even most of these people are contrite and repentant if confronted with the impact of their behaviour on others.

What happens when we apply Greg’s observations for pursuit of workplace happiness to these situations?

Instead of being the victim of a “bullying” event, we can reframe the occurrence into an opportunity to improve an injured relationship. We didn’t get disabled when we had an argument with a mate at school – most often we became closer as a result of the fight because we built a stronger set of boundaries during the “making up” phase. Have we gotten more fragile and inflexible as we grew into adulthood?

Do we really have to “medicalise” every event of uncivil behaviour in the workplace?

Does calling an unintentional offensive behaviour “bullying” protect people from its occurrence?

Can we get back to the legitimate definition of bullying, and quit diverting our focus from serious misbehaviour?

We can find a different way of addressing the problem, or keep paying billions for a challenging (but normal) part of social relationships in the workplace. The choice is ours, unless we insist on playing the role of victim.


* This is an excerpt from InPsych, the publication of the Australian Psychological Society, October 2004 issue, from an article entitled “Fighting Back: Workplace Bullying in Australia”

“The definition used by Melbourne-based health psychologist Toni Mellington is the one utilised by WorkSafe Victoria under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. That is, workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed toward an employee, or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety. ‘However, across differing workplace bullying definitions, there remain four key elements: workplace bullying is a workplace conflict; it is enduring and repeated in nature; it is inappropriate and possibly aggressive; and it results in a level of (physical and/or psychological) distress."