By Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA
One of my readers recently reached out to me about being bullied at work. She is the newest employee, and a coworker is making her life difficult. Fearful of her bully and not understanding why she is the target, she approached her boss. To her dismay, her boss blamed her for the bullying incidents instead of examining the situation.
Why would he do this? My reader feels that the dentist is intimidated by the bully himself and is also fearful.
Intimidation is a tactic that is often used to control other people.1 These tactics are sharp, cutting words, or sometimes it isn’t so much the words as how they were said. According to Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, only 7% of communication is verbal. The remaining 93% is nonverbal—body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%).2 A hateful stare, rolling of the eyes, sabotaging another’s work or ostracizing are all nonverbal behaviors that bullies often use. Experience has taught me that there are many flavors to uncivil behavior.
Early in my career, I befriended a fellow hygienist at a dental office where I worked part time. We were peers, and I wanted a collaborative and sharing relationship. I felt empathy for her painful past (alcoholic father) and opened up to, what I thought, was a friend. This turned out to be a mistake. She used information that was shared in confidence against me. Revealing my own vulnerabilities to someone who was not trustworthy made my life difficult. I grew to understand why others in the office referred to her as “The Intimidator.”
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, intimidate means to cow, bulldoze, bully, browbeat, and frighten others into submission. Intimidate implies inducing fear or a sense of inferiority into another. The hygienist that I now refer to as My Bully had mastered the art of intimidation. It reached the point to where, like my reader, I believe my boss was afraid of her as well.
Although “The Intimidator” was petite, she had a tongue that was sharp and cruel, a wit that was quick and critical, and a heart that seemed nonexistent. She appeared fearless, stepping in my personal zone, criticizing my work, putting me down, and making accusations that simply were not true. In short, I was totally disarmed and ill-equipped to deal with such viciousness.
My bully’s wit often gleaned admiration from the team players (including myself), since she could make everybody laugh with her clever, quick, and funny responses. What she projected in entertainment value, though, was negated by the dysfunction of her communication skills. Everyone was afraid of her poignant jibes. No one wanted to become the target of her wrath and some team members became her allies. As in street gangs, bullies will often have a following, and research shows there are two reasons why otherwise sensible people follow bullies.
- They are under the illusion that a bully is powerful and want to be on the winning team.
- They fear the bully and do not want to become a target themselves.
My bully had the added benefit of being the best friend of the dental office manager, and the office manager was the one who really wore the pants in this office. Their alliance made the bully untouchable. The office manager was biased toward her best friend, coloring the atmosphere in the office as well as influencing the doctor. I felt alone and was easy prey.
For way too long, I succumbed to my bully’s fearful attacks and retreated. Fight, flight, or freeze are the responses to threat, and in my youth, my default response was to flee. It was my nature to be a people pleaser and I did not have the assertiveness skills that I have today. My retreating, however, fueled the bullying behavior. I knew something needed to change. I decided to try another tactic.
The next time I was attacked, I attacked back. I called her on her behavior and pointed out that her accusation was false. I asserted myself, and because I feared this woman, it was a big step for me. To my surprise, she backed down. I was relieved and empowered. However, she did not give up the overt intimidation after this one incident. Because I maintained my defense, she soon learned that her own tactics needed to change.
She went covert in the war that she waged on me. In a sense, this was worse. She would avoid me at all cost, not speak to me if I spoke to her (unless someone was around), and for months she ignored me totally. One day, when I joined her alone at the lunchroom table, I asked her if she had a problem with me. Her one word answer was “no,” and then silence. You cannot build a relationship when the other person has no desire.
Finally, I approached my boss. He feigned that he was listening, but disappointingly, he took no action. No conversation entailed between him and my bully and no intervention or facilitating was done. It all went underground and my life was becoming a living hell. I eventually gave up on a losing battle and left this office.
Years later, after studying human behavior, I have analysed behavior used by both of us. This woman clearly had a hate-on for me. Why was I her target? I now know that bullies often target capable people, who are have pro-social skills, something that bullies often lack. My sense is that she was jealous of me on a few fronts and she recognized that I was not an aggressor, making me an easy target for her maladjusted behaviour.
Today, I feel empathy for my bully and recognize her as a teacher. She has helped me gain solid assertiveness skills and I now know what civil behavior in the workplace looks like. My programs all have a module on creating a respectful work environment, an atmosphere where staff can thrive, bringing their all to the workplace. Without a safe environment, people shut down and neither ideas nor passion are fertilized. In short, everyone loses.
There is little advice that I can give my bullied reader at this time. Certainly, she needs to document all incidents, enlist witnesses, and perhaps she will give her boss the white paper that I sent her: Preventing and Addressing Workplace Bullying.3
Most offices do not have guidelines around civil and uncivil behavior, although there is a need. This proactive exercise could prevent not only pain for employees, but could also increase productivity. It is difficult to concentrate on your job, if you constantly need to be on the defensive, looking out for the next attack.
I can however, help raise awareness about bullying. By writing about bullying, I hope all of us can become more comfortable in speaking about it and shine a light upon it. A psychologist friend tells me that bullies often model what they see. My bully grew up in a seriously dysfunctional home and was bullied. She learned bullying behaviour at home. My professional friend would prescribe therapy for my bully, hoping to help her deal with some painful underlying issues.
Like my boss of long ago, my reader’s boss allows dysfunctional behaviour in his office because he does not know how to lead away from it. He would simply like it to go away. It is not easy to deal with bullying behaviour, but gaining the skills for difficult conversations is necessary to lead. A strong leader would set boundaries of behaviour within the dental environment and model respectful behaviour towards everyone. I would warn my reader’s boss and any other employer, that bulling behaviour is toxic and will infect the entire team. Unless everyone in the office is treated with respect, the apathy of uncivil behaviour will grow. And like a chronic abscess, at some point it will erupt. RDH
Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change within dentistry. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation, and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] or visit engagingteams.com.
- A handbook on preventing and addressing workplace bullying and harassment. WorkSafeBC. ISBN 978-0-7726-6720-5.