For whatever reason, bullying in the workplace has become a common topic of discussion. This is very unfortunate and nobody should ever be subjected to it. At the same time, the line between what is seen as bullying and what is critical feedback is blurring. I sense there are increasing number of reports of workplace bullying but I’m not sure it’s an accurate reflection of what is going on. At this point I wanted to stress, I am not condoning workplace bullying in any sense. Instead, I observe an increasing level of sensitivity to having difficult conversations, and at times it is being confused with bullying.
What is Bullying?
Let’s start with bullying, what is it? Bullying is knowingly putting another person down, and inflicting pain and suffering. It typically occurs when one person abuses their power, for example in a senior/junior relationship. I experienced what I describe as bullying when I was told by a senior leader ‘I had nothing of value left to offer the company’. This was after, until that point, a very successful 15 year career. I also had another 5-10 very successful years following it. The feedback I received was intended to hurt and was, I believe, payback for letting this leader down. I don’t wish this on anyone.
This was the only time I experienced bullying, and there were many, many times I received especially tough feedback. This was a part of Intel’s culture. While it stung at the time, it made me better by ultimately helping me learn and grow. At the time, it didn’t always seem fair and sometimes it wasn’t but there was always a positive learning to be gleaned. Nothing positive was gained from my instance of being bullied.
The Increasing Intolerance of Discomfort in the Workplace
I recently read an excellent article by teaming expert Liane Davey on this topic. While Liane condemns bullying in any manner, in the article she laments the increasing intolerance of discomfort in the workplace. Here is an excerpt:
“I believe that the heart of the problem is that our culture is becoming exceedingly intolerant of discomfort. When one team member questions or challenges another’s work, suddenly it’s considered team dysfunction, bullying, toxic. It’s getting ridiculous. As soon as we’re admonishing the person who’s pushing for stronger, better work and protecting the person who’s content to stay comfortable, we’re in trouble.”
Liane describes bullying, bad behavior and intolerance of critical feedback. We’ve talked about bullying. By bad behavior she means things like poor communication, excluding people, and other poor management behaviors. All these inflict some level of pain and need to be addressed, but none of them are intentionally destructive.
Avoiding a Bigger Problem
Intolerance of discomfort is a big problem for any team. Everyone needs critical feedback to get better and if it disappears we will all be much worse off. Instead of avoiding difficult conversations, we need to create cultures that are psychologically safe. Cultures where we can be critical and help each other be at our best. In my next article I will talk about how to prepare for and have difficult conversations. By doing this well, I hope we can embrace discomfort in the context of learning and growing. I know it helped me a great deal in my career.