The Misconception of 'Bullying'

A history

Bullying has been around for decades, centuries even if you care to go back far enough; With German and Dutch roots, the word bully evolved from the words used for ‘lover’ and ‘friend’. A few decades down the track and bully was used as a term of endearment and familiarity and friendly admiration between men. Take us to the 1600s and the bully starts to take on a more heroic meaning with synonyms such as:

-          A gallant

-          A bravo

-          Swashbuckler

And from the 1700s we start to see the meaning the word ‘Bully’ start to take a more bleak and sinister meaning:

“a tyrannical coward who makes himself a terror to the weak”

The word as we know it know as we can see did not always have a negative connotation and was in fact used in a positive sense. In fact, United States President Teddy Roosevelt actually referred to his as a “bully pulpit” by which he meant a terrific platform to advocate for the good, a wonderful place in which we could speak to the world. Seems a bit distant from what we know it as now and somewhere the word transformed into a schoolyard term which commercial organisations have usurped.

The Current state

Worksafe New Zealand report that 1 on 3 workers reports bullying and harassment each year resulting in around 40,000 notifications over four years. Of that amount over four years, 159 were recorded as bullying with the rest failing to meet the criterion for bullying. What that tells us is that in New Zealand we still have yet to fully understand what bullying is and what it isn’t. As a nation we are hung up on the idea of bullying and the word has evolved as a catchall for behaviours outside of what bullying truly is.

As Psychologists we engage with reported stories of bullying almost weekly and what we often find are not cases of bullying but in fact a tonne of workplace Incivility! Moments of anger, thoughtless or hurtful behaviour or your boss just telling you to do your job a little aggressively can just be flippant moments of incivility.

A disclaimer here is that we do not believe that bullying does not exist however we know from the statistics that most organisations or individuals within organisations do not completely understand the difference between “Bullying “and “Incivility” and the differences can have strong effects on how it is handled and how it affects the people involved.

When we label a behaviour or an action bullying within the workplace, we automatically create a bully, a victim and whether they want it or not in some circumstance’s we create bystanders. The dialogue around bullying can often do more harm than good and creates a cycle of hostility between the individuals involved. The use of bullying has been documented by various researchers and prominent academics as negligent and too casually used in everyday settings which has an incendiary effect to the people and environment around it.

What we should be recognising?

In our experience as Psychologists what we are often witnessing are acts of incivility:

“low intensity, rude or anti-social behaviours”

Incivility is very different to bullying examples of which are just your rude, inconsiderate or angry individuals in the workplace or somebody just having a bad day. Although Incivility has its differences, it is highly damaging for workplace morale, engagement and various other factors. But make no mistake about it, Incivility is a workplace killer and also needs to be addressed, by focusing on what civil behaviour looks like.

So where to from here?

What you can do right now in your team or organisation is start by identifying what bullying and uncivil behaviours are. Getting this clear amongst your teams and organisations is the crucial first step!

The next thing is to then watch your language, so adopting a framework like above or below the line for example, so that people are using that language instead of ‘bully’ or “bullying”. This way we can start to change the narrative which is a positive step in reducing the incidence of bullying in the workplace because what we know about the brain is – You get what you focus on!   

Blog by Seth Heynes