Can a developing, potential workplace bullying situation be nipped in the bud? In my judgment, the answer depends on definitions, the characteristics of the aggressor(s), and in some instances the savvy of the intended target.
So much of the research, commentary, and advice on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse assumes situations that have already elevated into a serious state. However, we know much less about situations that may start as lower level conflicts and then elevate into more serious interpersonal abuse — and whether informal or formal intervention could’ve prevented the latter.
For what it’s worth, here is my sense of the landscape on this question:
When a situation involves mostly incivility, rudeness, or disrespect, it may be resolvable.
When a situation involves an abrasive boss or co-worker, it may be resolvable.
When a situation is still one of conflict, strong difference of opinion, or a personality clash, it may be resolvable.
By “resolvable” I mean informal and formal means of working out differences, even in situations that might involve a perceived dignity violation. Talking things out and informal mediation are among the most common ways of getting to a better place. In more intractable circumstances, a move or transfer may be advisable before a situation becomes sharply acute.
In some, perhaps many, of these less severe instances, the personal traits of the individual experiencing the mistreatment will come into play. In no way I am suggesting that we engage in victim blaming here. Rather, I’m saying that an individual’s interpersonal skill set may play a role in navigating, avoiding, or stopping incivility and disrespect, as well as helping to ratchet down disagreements threatening to go haywire.
And, of course, the overall quality of management and the culture of the organization will feed into these equations, too. Quality workplaces are better equipped to handle these situations and resolve them fairly.
Interestingly, all of these scenarios may be defined — often wrongly, I believe — as bullying. In this context I think it’s vital for us to distinguish between individual bullying-type behaviors and genuine bullying or mobbing situations. The latter are what we most need to be concerned about in terms of personal impact.
The big, huge “however”
So folks, here’s my big however: When someone is subjected to intentional, targeted mistreatment designed to cause them harm or distress, that’s the game changer. Toss out of the window notions of conflict, differences of opinion, personality clashes, bad manners, or general jerkiness. The situation is now abusive, and we’re looking at genuine workplace bullying.
Incidentally, this is where I’ve set the bar for recovery under the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I drafted. It’s about providing a legal claim for health harming, targeted abuse at work.
Once we’re at this point, a target’s strong interpersonal skills will be of less use. The bullying or mobbing has started, it is driven by malice, and the aggressor(s) aren’t that interested in patching up differences and making peace. The eliminationist instinct often has taken over.
In sum, if a situation quickly accelerates into full-fledged bullying, then nipping it in the bud is awfully hard. Other, less severe scenarios may possibly be resolved with only minor bloodshed.