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How to detect and eliminate invisible bullying

Does your workplace tolerate a bit of banter with inappropriate underlying innuendo? Are there unhealthy cliques, or is it rumour filled? Or does your boss fail to give credit when credit is due? Such negative workplace behaviours are rampant in Australian workplaces and are on the rise.

We refer to these destructive behaviours as “invisible bullying”. Yet, because they are not as overt as more typical forms of workplace bullying such as aggression and sexual harassment, they tend to be ignored, or even worse, unrecognised as potentially destructive behaviours.

New research shows that these destructive behaviours can cause just as much psychological damage and harm over time as overt bullying and harassment

What are invisible bullying behaviours?

Invisible bullying behaviours are the “blink and you will miss” behaviours that result in us hitting snooze on the alarm clock instead of jumping out of bed each day. They are the behaviours that make you second guess whether you are imagining things, whether you misinterpreted that comment or if you are being overly sensitive when you were ignored in that meeting. They are often disrespectful, rude behaviours.

Examples of invisible bullying can also include unreasonably increasing workload pressures, unreasonably taking away an employee’s responsibilities, micro-managing, springing unexpected meetings on employees and ignoring destructive behaviours when they come to light.

Why invisible bullying behaviours cannot be ignored

These behaviours are the most common form of harmful behaviours in the workplace and the most difficult to recognise. Whilst bullying can be described as the cancer of today’s workplace, it is these invisible, subtle behaviours which are the toxic tumours spreading underneath the surface.

These more subtle, uncivil workplace behaviours can cause just as much damage over time to morale, productivity and intention to stay as the more overt forms of bullying and harassment. The costs of invisible bullying to productivity and therefore the bottom line are significant and growing.

How to detect invisible bullying

It is difficult to identify these behaviours compared to the more traditional forms of direct bullying such as physical violence, sexual harassment and stigmatisation because they are not necessarily intentional. Rather, recent research demonstrates that such behaviours are more likely to be symptomatic of ultra-aggressive, dysfunctional and bureaucratic workplace cultures that are often focused on short-term outcomes no matter the cost to employee welfare or engagement.

Characteristics of such destructive workplace cultures often include:

  • Organisations that have low morale
  • There is an extremely competitive obsession with internal competition, not co-operation
  • Organisations that have low levels of perceived organisational support
  • Recruitment, promotion and reward systems focus on individuals
  • Teamwork is not encouraged
  • Fear is a dominant desired workplace emotion
  • Work groups are often male dominated with no desire for diversity
  • There is high employee turnover

How to eliminate invisible bullying

Invisible bullying won’t be fixed with “bandaid solutions” or new or expanded policies. Its elimination will involve ongoing dedication to total culture change. This is no simple task and requires a significant investment in creating and maintaining a respectful workplace culture. Change must be led from the top. It will also require that the issue be addressed by everyone in the organisation in a way that engages and empowers employees, and equips them with an understanding of all forms of incivility, harassment and bullying and how to stop it.

To measure the progress of initiatives to minimise invisible bullying at your organisation, you should conduct exit interviews to examine the reasons why your staff are leaving, as well as regular 360 degree reviews to identify and manage all forms of bullying behaviours. In addition, you should conduct an annual employee engagement survey, such as Insync Surveys’ Alignment and Engagement Survey to measure your organisational climate and track the progress of change.

For more information about the costs, causes and how your organisation can adopt a positive approach to tackling workplace bullying, we recommend the article written by one of our specialist consultants currently completing a PhD, Laura Barker: A positive approach to workplace bullying: Lessons from the Victorian Public Sector.

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