We take the bull(y) by the horns to explore what bullying is, why it happens, and how it continues to impact folks in both the personal and work domains.
We’ve all been there, and we’ve all felt it in one way or another. Someone did or said things to us to belittle us, to beat down our spirit, or to make us feel rotten. It may have happened in the schoolyard, on the playground, at home, or in the arena. And it kept happening for days, weeks, months, or even years.
You’d tell someone – a parent, a teacher, a coach – and they may have just told you to ‘suck it up’ or ‘grow a thicker skin.’ They said it would end at some point; that everyone would grow out of it.
But what if everyone didn’t grow out of it? What if the behaviours continued or started anew in adulthood?
Well, that’s still bullying, and its effects are still real to those being targeted by a bully. In fact, bullying – particularly when it takes place in the work environment – has negative impacts that reach throughout an organization and its workforce.
Prairie Manufacturer’s Jeff Baker spoke with Dr. Maggie Penfold, a clinical psychologist working in private practice at Wolseley Wellness on Corydon in Winnipeg, about bullying, what we can do to mitigate its negative impacts, and how we can support those being targeted. Dr Penfold’s practice addresses a range of common mental health concerns for adults living in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba in 2016.
This conversation took place on April 29, 2023, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeff Baker (JB): So, Dr Penfold, what is bullying?
Dr. Maggie Penfold (MP): A generally accepted definition is that bullying is a chronic pattern of behaviour that involves physically or psychologically harming or intimidating someone to get a certain outcome through that behaviour.
JB: Is bullying always a longer-term pattern or can it be a one-time thing?
MP: If we think about what looks like bullying in terms of a one-time behaviour, we could say somebody in this moment is behaving poorly or making a poor choice of what to do or what to say. When we think of what bullying actually is though, you’re looking for a pattern over time; it’s not just a one-time instance of misbehaviour.
JB: There are probably a lot of folks who think bullying is something that only children experience or perpetrate. I assume that isn’t really the case though?
MP: I think it is common for some people to pass it off as something that’s just kids being kids and they’ll grow out of it. However, it can and does happen well into adulthood, and of course it will have a different look and feel than what you might see in school or on the playground. Not everyone will grow out of the behaviour, particularly if there’s something about it that’s actually working for them on some level.
People don’t just wake up one day and say, ‘It’d be really great to just go out and bully someone.’ There’s something that triggers the behaviour – like some kind of stress or threat, a feeling of insecurity, or competing for scarce resources – and the bullying becomes a way of trying to cope with that stress and get a need met. If there’s reinforcement – negative or positive – the bullying is likely to continue.
JB: Does bullying in the workplace look different from that taking place outside the workplace, like in a family or personal situation?
MP: Not necessarily. Some aspects of it can have a different look and feel in more personal relationships, but if we think about what tends to trigger the behaviour and what the general function of the behaviour is, it’s really not that different. There might be some different styles or different ways in which it’s carried out, but the underlying processes are very similar.
JB: Does there need to be an imbalance of power, authority, or control for bullying to happen?
MP: Certainly, there can be a power imbalance or a situation where people might be a subordinate, have less seniority, or be part of a marginalized group, or identify with a minority group that has less power or less status. These are people who can end up being targets of bullying. However, sometimes bullying can get aimed at people with more power or status. It’s not nearly as common, but it can definitely happen.
JB: What sort of behaviours will we typically see or experience with bullying in the adult domain?
MP: The behaviours can be physical or verbal, subtle, or very in-your-face. In terms of physical behaviours, it can be physical intimidation, like people not respecting personal space. In more serious cases, there might be physical acts carried out towards another person, like hitting, pushing, and shoving, or physically blocking someone’s ability to leave or enter a space. There can also be other behavioural markers, such as not completing tasks as directed and not cooperating with requests from co-workers or supervisors.
If we think about verbal bullying behaviors, it could be extremely negative feedback or derogatory comments. It can be as blatant as name-calling or insults. It might also be somebody delivering subtle jabs, giving backhanded compliments, or implying that you don’t know what you’re talking about. It could be aimed at undermining your confidence, trying to get other people to undermine your confidence, saying things that might get you to question your own perceptions of yourself and your abilities.
JB: That almost sounds like going down the path of gaslighting someone.
MP: Gaslighting can be one of the ways that bullies will attempt to undermine confidence and have control over others. If you’re wanting to speak up or address the bullying, the bully might be planting the message of ‘can you really trust what you’re thinking or saying, or how you’re seeing this?’ ‘Did that thing really happen?’ or ‘Is this really happening?’
JB: Going back to the physical nature – particularly not respecting personal space and not allowing people to exit or enter a space – there seemed to be more of that sort of bullying taking place over the last few years during the pandemic. Was there actually more, or was it more the case of heightened awareness and more people ready to record these situations with their phones?
MP: There’s so many variables at play in every situation, but I do think the pandemic – and all the extra care, thought, and precautions that it required of us – probably illuminated some challenges and issues that were already there. There was more attention paid to the situations, and a lot of people were living with so much more stress than they had ever experienced. And of course, when we’re experiencing stress like that, our ability to self-regulate, to be thoughtful, to just engage with other people the way we might usually want to, it was very challenging for many of us.
JB: What negative impacts can bullying have on a person who is a target of the harassment?
MP: It’s quite jarring, upsetting, and distressing to be the target of bullying behaviour. People might express feelings of sadness, anxiety, or anger, or all the above. There can also be a feeling of just being alone in the situation, feeling trapped, and feeling like they don’t know what to do.
There may be a sense of hopelessness or helplessness that if they even try to bring this up, they are not going to be believed, nothing is going to happen in response, or they risk having things get worse. We do hear stories about people who have tried to speak up or get help, and then the bullying escalates in some way or there’s some other negative consequence that happens, so there’s a lot of fear, anger, and doubt.
There’s such a burden of proof placed on the person who is the target, so it’s just further victimization in the process of trying to get help or trying to advocate for themselves. This can result in the victim engaging in avoidance behaviours, the person doing the bullying behaviour not being held accountable, and the bullying continuing.
In the workplace, avoidance can manifest as someone starting to disengage from important workplace tasks or not participating as much as they might have been. There might be some time away from work where people end up using sick time or vacation time, or perhaps even unpaid time if they’re feeling desperate enough to get away.
Productivity will also drop. It’s difficult to be productive if you’ve got this element of threat in your environment at work. You’re just not going to be able to show up and give as much as you might otherwise be able to.
JB: Can someone be bullied, but not know that they’re being bullied? Can it be a covert behaviour?
MP: Yes, absolutely. One of the ways that it can be carried out is through gaslighting, as we discussed earlier, where the person might be left questioning their perception, questioning their reality, questioning their experiences of it. Sometimes this can even become self-gaslighting, where they’re not just receiving it from other people, but it starts to turn into an internal loop of negative self-evaluation and self-doubt.
JB: What can someone do to help if they have a person in their life – at work or at home – who is experiencing bullying behaviours?
MP: It’s going to depend on the context of each situation, but generally a great way to start to help is just to make space for the person to really share what they’ve been experiencing, giving them an opportunity to walk through the pattern of experiences that they’ve had, really offering that validation for them to just be heard and to feel understood.
It helps to have another person they trust hear about the reality and have it known, to have it outside of them and to begin to help think about ways to address the situation: Who should they go to next? What’s the chain of command to go through? What supports are available to assist the person?
JB: You commented earlier about the burden of proof being quite heavy on the victim of the bullying. So, what advice might you offer to an HR director or company leader as to making the process less onerous or intimidating for the victim of the bullying?
MP: Well, I’m not an HR professional, so my knowledge isn’t necessarily about HR processes or practices or how this might all play out, but I would suggest examining if there are any unnecessary steps or bureaucracy that could be a barrier to reporting and looking at ways to reduce those barriers would be a good start to easing the process. Another important piece would be making sure that there is a safe place to go, and making it clear who and where that is.
Educating your workforce is critical, too. Make sure people know the language for this, that there is a way to talk about these issues, to name them, and to properly identify and address them. Helping people find the words to use and knowing where to go helps reduce the uncertainty they might have about reporting and flagging bullying behaviours.
JB: Can you talk more about the psychological safety aspect of bullying and the importance of it in a business or team?
MP: It’s something that takes time and effort to build and maintain an environment where these kinds of bullying behaviours will not be tolerated. It’s important for the psychological safety of workplaces that the leaders and workforce be able to name what the behaviours are, and that there will be actual, meaningful consequences for people who are engaging in bullying behaviour; and it will be done as transparently as possible.
Another thing a workplace can do to help is reduce the focus on competitiveness (at least internally). It goes back to one of the causes behind bullying behaviour – the competition for scarce resources or a feeling of insecurity. Maybe the competitiveness or scarcity is real, but maybe it’s not, and emphasizing a more collaborative and team-based approach in the workplace will be more likely to allow people to thrive and produce. There might be some concern about the impact of less competitiveness on productivity, but productivity definitely takes a hit when bullying is present.
JB: Is it possible to fix or reform a bully?
MP: It really depends, but I absolutely think it’s possible. For change to happen, the person engaging in bullying behaviour will need to be willing to examine themselves and look at some hard truths. It will be very uncomfortable, and they might require therapy or additional training in order to build skills for coping with stress and engaging in alternative behaviours.
Unfortunately, not everyone is open or willing to change, they might not yet be at a place where they’re ready to give up the behaviours, or they still lack the insight needed.
When trying to address this issue, there is going to be discomfort experienced by everyone involved, and it’s often not a situation people go into willingly or easily. There’s the discomfort for the person who is being targeted – not just for experiencing it, but also having to talk about it, name it, and explain it to other people. Supervisors, managers, and HR personnel will feel discomfort hearing about the experiences, and also in having to give difficult feedback or enforce consequences.
As people, we have to practice being more willing to feel the discomfort, to take some risks, to try something different. It’s important to focus on what we have immediate control over – our own behaviours – and we also can’t stop there. To make change happen, you can’t focus only on an individual or a small group – you might get some short-term results – you need the focus to be on the workplace as a whole. This requires buy-in, implementation, and patience from all levels of the workplace.