Can terms such as “workplace bullying” be overused to the point of actually impeding the effective resolution of conflicts at work? Yes, says Coreen Nugent, writing in the British-based Personneltoday.com:
Using this term to describe inappropriate behaviour such as poor management, unwanted personal comments and jokes that go too far, can cause situations to rapidly escalate into a total breakdown of the workplace relationship. Once an allegation of bullying has been made, workers will immediately adopt unhelpful and defensive positions, with less room for rebuilding the relationship.
Nugent’s observations deserve our attention. If allegations of bullying are made every time people exchange angry words or believe they are on the receiving end of bad management practices and decisions, then we run the risk of elevating tensions and disagreements in the workplace. In addition, overuse of the term has the effect of obscuring the truly abusive, malicious, and harmful behaviors that constitute genuine workplace bullying.
It’s true that, at the margins, it can be difficult to distinguish lousy management or human relations skills from bullying, but we should be careful not to use bullying as a generic term for workplace discord and dysfunction. Here is where terms such as workplace incivility come into play. Of course, bad management can reveal itself in ways that exploit power relationships at work, raising scenarios that fall short of bullying while nevertheless causing stress and anxiety. It’s also possible to have a manager who is so screwed up that s/he maliciously targets a lot of people, so here again we run into tricky situations at the border.
That said, bullying, as this blog has emphasized over and again, tends to be targeted, malicious, and health-endangering. When it reaches this level, it should be named as such, notwithstanding Nugent’s valid concerns.
For Coreen Nugent’s “Workplace bullying: top tips for tackling the problem”: http://www.personneltoday.com/articles/2009/06/26/51204/workplace-bullying-top-tips-for-tackling-the-problem.html