Workplace bystanders and bullies: an unpopular opinion
This piece describes bystanders who witness aggressive to bullying behaviours in a workplace context. This piece is not applicable to life threatening situations inside or outside a workplace.
Here’s a common workplace scenario:
A manager is lecturing a colleague during a meeting regarding a failed project. They are laying out accusations and strategies that should have been executed instead. Others involved in the project are not given any feedback. This is not the first time the manager has singled out the employee in front of others. And just like every other time, no one intervenes during the awkward situation.
After work, a bystander scrolls through their twitter feed and comes across some posts about speaking up against harm and being an upstander by standing up to bullies. There are other posts about privilege and oppression and those in positions of power should use their privilege to advocate for those who are marginalized and victimized in their workplace. The bystander starts wondering if they should have said something during the meeting, or even after, to their targeted colleague. And if so, what could they have said that didn’t embarrass the victim or the senior manager? How could they have intervened in a way that didn’t make them a new target? Feelings of shame, confusion and outrage surface, followed by powerlessness and resignation. They decide that their job is really important for their career aspirations and that they wouldn’t do anything that might jeopardise their position.
These messages about being an upstander make sense. They speak to a moral principle about harm prevention and protecting the vulnerable. These messages suggest that there is a right thing to do and that’s always to stand up to the perpetrator and protect the victim and in doing so, you alleviate the moral distress that arises from witnessing wrongdoing.
Yet in a workplace hierarchy consisting of people in positions of relative power, this isn’t so black and white.
Some myths you might have about your workplace:
Workplaces are safe and have policies that everyone follows effectively to keep each other safe.
If you experience assault, harassment or bullying, workplace policies are on your side and the perpetrator, regardless of their workplace title, will be swiftly held to account for their harmful actions with appropriate consequences.
Senior leaders in your institution have the emotional maturity to manage conflict, resist ego stroking behaviours by perpetrators, and investigate complaints with curiosity and objectivity.
You can trust your manager or leader to have your or your colleague’s back.
You can trust your institution.
What policies don’t account for is the workplace hierarchy, power differentials, power hoarding, or social climbing. Or the grooming strategies that some employees use to form alliances with people in positions of relative or greater power to protect them against their unethical actions. Or the bias that already exists to support those who embody the ideal traits of the workplace culture over those who do not.
If people near the bottom of a team or workplace hierarchy are more vulnerable to the decisions and actions of those at the higher end of the hierarchy, then whose responsibility is it to keep each other safe, especially if the bully is someone higher on the ladder?
Many people would say it’s everyone’s responsibility to stamp out bullying. I used to think that too until I witnessed over and again how this aspirational workplace motto is impossible in workplace contexts that promote people for their charisma, confidence and grandiose narcissistic traits over competence, collegiality and ethics. It’s just not possible when psychological safety isn’t demonstrated and embodied in a team.
An unpopular opinion
Because of these safety issues, it can’t be a bystander’s responsibility to stand up to a bully or protect a victim in a workplace culture favouring employees who have successfully groomed those in positions of power to retaliate against them. The risk of psychological, economic and reputation harm can be far too great to sacrifice for another colleague, especially when the bully is armed with alliances, status and power far greater than the victim and yourself.
Greater power means greater responsibility to preserve and model behaviours of a healthy workplace culture.
However, power is not only dependent on position in the hierarchy - it’s dependent on the internal structures that support and protect against those who will try to oppose and dismantle the current workplace culture - whether it’s toxic or healthy.
It's those in positions of real power and influence to model behaviours that support psychological safety. It’s management's role to stop raising bullies.
It's management's and those in leadership's role to stop protecting and defending the actions of bullies.
They ultimately preserve the existing culture rather than change it when their egos are easily wooed and placated by opportunists, knowledge vamps and social climbers.
System Justification Theory by Prof. John Jost defines why and how despite witnessing harmful behaviour, bystanders protect perpetrators. Their perceived survival and success in the system depends on it.
This conditioning starts in our family system.
There is no do the right thing when the consequences of standing up to a bully protected by their system is harmful backlash, reputation & financial injury. You stand up when you are safe enough because of your status, position & protections.
Even the Golden Child or prized leader can fall from grace.
Even the most discerning and powerful can be seduced by someone else's promises of power.
These subtle narcissistic behaviours are more the norm than the exception in institutions.
5 take away messages about workplace bullies and bystanders to ponder:
It’s unhelpful to pressure people into doing the right thing (according to your rules of conduct) when you're unaware of their personal circumstances in their own workplace context that can cause harm. Context matters always.
Place responsibility on the system and its leaders for perpetuating conditions that causes moral injury.
Know your rank and status in your own workplace team and broader community hierarchy. This will allow you to know how much protection you have that will enable you to stand up to wrongdoing without sacrificing your wellbeing.
Take note of people's behaviours. Who's safe and trustworthy and who isn't. Then go through my checklist and review your list again. You’ll likely to need to make some changes.
Moral distress is a natural result of being a bystander to wrongdoing in a context where it’s not safe for you to speak up or blow the whistle on a bully. It says more about the toxic workplace culture than about your character.
How has this piece fit with your own workplace experiences? If it didn’t resonate, why? Comment below!
My next piece is on identifying features of a toxic relationship and a toxic workplace culture. The relationship is a microcosm of what it looks like in a group setting. Stay tuned!
Thank you for reading, your ongoing support for my work and for your thoughts on this piece,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker
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