Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries


Two summers ago, Yes! magazine devoted its cover package to the power of storytelling for purposes of driving positive social change. I’ve thought about that collection of articles often in connection with the challenges of telling stories about workplace bullying, both to educate the public generally and to advocate for passage of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Of course, it’s relatively easy to summarize frequent bullying behaviors, their prevalence, and their destructive effects on individuals and organizations. For example, I start a lot of my talks on workplace bullying with a quick section that covers these basics. I often find a lot of people nodding their heads in recognition of the behaviors I’m describing and how people are affected by them.

Similarly, stories of overt, in-your-face bullying behaviors are pretty easy to summarize. This form of workplace mistreatment is probably the closest thing we have to common schoolyard bullying or verbal domestic abuse. The facts are fairly straightforward and easily comprehended.

But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.

Over the years, many individuals who have experienced more complex forms of bullying at work have shared their extended narratives through long personal statements, social media, and self-published books. The inherent problem is that very few of them translate easily into digestible summaries that maintain the attention spans of legislators, journalists, and the public. I know of many other instances of severe workplace bullying that are hard to comprehend in their entirety without a strong understanding of all the players and institutions.

By their very nature, some stories are complex. They require time and effort to get their significance. In an age resistant to detail and nuance, the challenge of finding receptive audiences for these complicated stories of bullying at work yields no simple answers. This will continue when the Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law. The storytelling challenge will then move from the court of public opinion to courts of law. It will be up to legal advocates to help craft these narratives with, and on behalf of, their clients.

10 responses

  1. Thank you for this post. I have given a great deal of thought as to how to tell a workplace bullying story that is over six years in the making, and involves probably more than a few dozen people from distant parts of one organization. I have begun to use charts. Nothing formal, I just draw them as I talk. I identify common behaviours, common players, common tactics and similar or connected motives. This has proven very helpful in making others understand the extent of the problem, if not all the nuances. It is a good starting point, and it helps me to sound logical, reasonable, organized and clear. Which in turn helps me to get the assistance I need. It’s not easy, but it is a useful tool. Your blog helps to keep me sane during this time of bullying insanity. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your comments and kind words about this blog.

      If I may add a few observations based on many years of being involved with this stuff: It’s very hard to tell your story when the story itself is still in progress. First, stories that are works in progress are inherently difficult to tell, generically speaking. Second, it’s even harder to shape the story when you’re experiencing the emotional and psychological dynamics of the experience, especially if they are anxiety and trauma related.

      That said, some trauma therapists — drawing on research about trauma recovery — are encouraging their clients to write about their experiences. There is a growing literature on this that I hope to explore some day on this blog.

      Good luck to you!

  2. David, you are hitting on a model to tell these more complex stories, whether they be about bullying and/or burnout. Psychiatrists and psychologists, starting with Freud’s evocative writing, have long published case studies of lengthy psychotherapy (with identities disguised for confidentiality). These stories are still informative and educational. Those, like yourself (as well as colleagues and therapists), who hear these stories should write them up, possibly for a book of such stories, with commentary.

    Be well,

    Steven Moffic, M.D.

    • Steve, thank you for suggesting that angle on how to preserve and share some of these stories. I think it’s an especially apt suggestion now that mental health providers are starting to devote greater attention to work abuse.

  3. Excellent post David. I appreciate your work and the ability you have to understand and express the complexities of WPB. I found it almost impossible to give voice to my experiences of many years. When I did attempt to, I could literally see the listeners eyes glazing over as I spoke (understandably). This led to me internalising it all and the effect was what I can only describe as a psychological implosion. Over time I had written tomes on my experiences and what I had learnt, but unfortunately this took place only in my mind. Every time I sat before the computer to write I froze! Maybe one day…. 🙂

    • Lill C, given the traumatic nature of such experiences, it would not be surprising that trying to talk about them might trigger an emotional response like implosion. That is another reason why it might be better to team with someone who is knowledgeable about the effects of trauma and can be a support for telling your story.

      Steve Moffic, M.D.

    • Lill, you are not alone in experiencing difficulty in putting down your story. I have seen this with others, usually at opposite ends of the spectrum: Either they can’t write at all, or they write a gusher of words in not too organized fashion. Just be kind to yourself no matter what the result.

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