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Are you living in a soap opera?

We all know that the impact of bullying can, at its worst, be life threatening. The detrimental impact of the emotional and psychological turmoil is now recognized, and as part of the Health and Safety at Work act, workplaces are being asked to address the problem.

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

Since entering the workplace I have been on the receiving end of unwanted attention and behaviour at work. At the time I could only describe the experience as being akin to living in a soap opera. People watch soap operas due to the outlandish personalities portrayed, when you find that you are trying to interact with one of these people, there is an unrealistic quality to the experience. Having a certain level of self-awareness I looked at my actions first.

Was it something I said, did or did not do?

In past situations this kind of reflection was enough to address the situation. I am aware that I am not always right and can wind people up in the wrong way. An apology or frank discussion with the other person usually resolved the issue. Unfortunately when this occurred across pay scales and authority levels; I was unable to put in place any solutions. Due to the power play taking place I was unable to control the situation; any attempts to discuss my feelings fell on deaf ears. I was forced into keeping quiet about the situation until the tension built to a level where I felt the need to lay a complaint. Laying a complaint is a big step, and not one many want to take, it implies failure, an inability to sort out one’s own problems. It also implies a conscious undertaking by the other party to cause the unwanted inner turmoil and discomfort, labelling another as a bully is not a nice thing to do.


The challenge leaders have, is how to stop, solve and sort out such issues before they get to this stage. Relationships are complex things, and in my experience bullying seems to rise from quite childlike behaviour, more usually seen in sibling rivalry.

My children regularly do what siblings do. They annoy each other. They give each other the look; they walk past just that little too close for comfort, causing the other to bump into them, or the wall. They sneer, say mean things, and work to get the other into trouble. Exactly why they do this is hard to understand, other than at the time it probably seems like fun, especially when friends are around to witness the discomfort.

It can stem from their insecurities, or their need to receive attention and feel important.

When they were younger my children did what siblings do, annoyed each other. Once I was driving and unable to give them my full attention; Something had kicked off and I could not accurately arbitrate as I was not fully aware of what had happened. I was aware that one threw something at the other, in response to what they perceived as a snide comment, unfriendly look and sinister giggle. I stepped in pointing out that throwing things and reacting with a physical response was not okay, though I did acknowledge that it would be better if such unwanted looks and comments were kept to a minimum too. On arrival home the item thrown was requested back, but not given graciously. I went inside with my eldest, she locked the door behind her to prevent the entry of their sibling, I went and unlocked the door, and clearly stated that to end a war one side needs to be willing to end the conflict, rather than inflame it.

Generally my children get on really well, we are able to function as a family unit in such a way that most people would not know what was going on. However when one of them is in a certain mood, then it does not take much for the other to get the blame for it.

My children have an excuse, they are children, they are still learning the finer points of emotional literacy, adults on the other hand are expected to have learnt that lesson, but unfortunately not all of them have.

Workplaces can learn from schools, they have been trying to resolve this bullying problem for years. In the UK I worked for four years in the field of mediation and used this method to help schools to improve their pupils’ ability to tackle their own disagreements. What I found was that the main problem was with the system, and relationships.


I was classed as a bully when I was at school. There was a person that we no longer wanted to hang around with, and we tackled this problem by making some choices which had a greater detrimental effect on the other person’s wellbeing than I would ever have wished for. We wanted a friend who we could hang out with after school, and at weekends. This person was never allowed to join us, and so we had naturally grown apart since primary school. We just did not want to hang out with them anymore, and thought that making them uncomfortable in our presence was the best way to encourage them to leave. I was threatened with suspension, which made my parents get involved. They fortunately did not defend my actions but called for a conversation to be had with all involved. During the meeting we were able to air how we saw the situation, and explain the driving force behind our behaviour. The other person agreed that due to their parent’s current situation, getting out at weekends was a problem for them; however they really missed having someone to walk to school with in the morning. We apologised for our behaviour and agreed to walk with them to school; they then went and mixed with other friends.


Like schools I would encourage workplaces to put in a new step into their disciplinary policies, one where issues can be raised, without the associated black mark against someone’s record. For many organisations the beginnings of this step already exists. Supervision provides a sounding board for staff, it allows a note to be made of behaviour, and for discussions to be had around ways to move forward, however it rarely involves the antagonist, and if the antagonist is the supervisor, as with my own case, then it requires a very open person for this to work.

As a leader you should want to advocate for your staff member. The organisation has invested a lot of money into each person; even the recruitment process can cost a good proportion of their yearly salary. Below is an outline of the different steps, and level of disruption these can cause to the organisation.


LEVEL 1 – Low level, least disruptive, non-intrusive

At this level you are trying to find out more information, providing support and acknowledging that an issue may exist.

  1. Regular supervision – even when things are going well it is important to meet up. We all know that little things can build up and it is best to address feelings of discomfort, or unease, at the early stages. With coaching, most people can sort out their own issues.

  2. Targeted team training – If a recurring issue is being aired, then involving the whole team in training may address it, even if it does nothing more than increase awareness of the impact of certain behaviours on others. Getting the team to self-regulate and support each other, is more effective than having to rely on a manager or team leader to sort out all the everyday stuff.

LEVEL 2 – Some disruption and intrusion

At this level there is an increased awareness between the parties that there is a problem which needs addressing. A change in behaviour or policy is required,

  1. An informal meeting – When you only hear from one side you can find yourself making assumptions, it is only fair that you find out if the other side has an awareness of the issue. It is important to be clear that there is no blame being apportioned at this time. This is about raising the awareness of the issue, and giving each person the opportunity to address it in an adult way.

  2. If there is an imbalance of power then the organisation may benefit from an impartial mediator at this point. If the issue is between different team members it can be hard for the supervisors to take this role, due to their existing relationship with one side.

  3. Targeted individual training – This may be needed to address the problem, especially if the issue is being caused by inability, rather than intent.

LEVEL 3 – Very disruptive

At this level things become more public, the fact that a problem exists becomes common knowledge, and sides can be taken. There is a demand for action to be taken

  1. A formal complaint is received– This is where most disciplinary procedures begin. At this point supervisory and HR representatives find themselves working with policies which are focused on finding out who is at fault. This puts both sides on the defensive, reducing their willingness to accept training or support, for any other outcome than the one they are fighting for.


So what can you do?

  1. Improve your workforce’s emotional literacy and ability to communicate.

  2. Listen without judgement to your staff, have that open door policy which so many places indicate they have, timetable regular supervisions and have them, even when there are no discernible issues to discuss

  3. Be open to making changes to policies and procedures, they may no longer be relevant to today’s workforce. Poor managers can hide behind the paperwork, just because it is written down does not make it right for every situation.

  4. Support the one struggling by providing a peer mentor, one who can provide them with the emotional support they need to stand up to the antagonist.

  5. Reassign staff to remove them from a situation where there is a personality clash.

  6. Find out from those in the situation their solutions, if they can agree to a solution, they will be much more effective than any imposed on them.

The wish to say, ‘go away’ in a way which does not hurt another’s feelings, does not get easier, or disappear with age. Workplaces, like schools, force different people and personalities together and say, ‘go be effective.’ Sometimes difficult conversations are required, and an agreement around behaviour at work is needed. An unofficial document which clearly outlines the structure of communication between the two parties can provide guidance to both sides, helping them to learn different and more acceptable behaviour patterns. When there are problem in the future, conflict can be defused by focusing on tweaking this document, rather than antagonising each other.

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All the very best

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