I continued to tutor prison students on a voluntary basis, and I was falsely accused of supplying a prisoner with the plans to the new prison, which, I might add, were freely available in the public domain. As a result, I was banned from every prison in Australia for life. When I left the prison service, I suffered severe anxiety and regular panic attacks. I was self-destructive, obsessed with what had happened to me, unable to do even the most basic things, like shop or pay the bills or cook for my family. I thought about suicide. I suffered a complete breakdown, and was unable to work for some years. Though this situation sounds extreme, it’s actually more common than you’d think. One conversation I had with the director of the prisons was revealing. I expressed concern about noticing that management were bullying staff. He told me that, as far as he was concerned, there was no one being bullied because no one had reported it.
72% of employers deny, discount and defend bullying behavior. The director of prisons was a case in point. Staff told me that being bullied was common for them, but they’re adamant that they weren’t going to make a complaint. They told me it was a quick way to end their career. One wonders how long the BBC producer might last in his role, and, by the way, his name is Oisin Tymon, he’s 38 and he comes from Ireland. Following my prison experience, it would have been easy to believe that people are born bullies and deliberately want to cause others harm. Instead, I realized what happened to me was cultural, not personal. I knew that I wasn’t the only one being affected. Staff and management were all products of their environment, and, in this environment, it was normal practice to treat others badly.
We’re all affected by the same system. And prisons aren’t alone in creating and maintaining a brutal or authoritarian closed system. In my professional work, I’ve seen a clear link between authoritarian management styles, closed systems and bullying. And organizations can implicitly encourage bullying by the practices they normalize. If an organization does not spell out expected behaviors, then bullying behaviors can become accepted practice, and all the time I saw this in the prison. I saw new employees’ behavior change from being respectful to disrespectful and bullying. My focus has shifted to understanding and preventing bullying. I feel compelled to change a system that allows this harm to happen.
And the relationship between culture and the construction of power is crucial to understanding how bullying manifests and becomes entrenched behavior. In workplaces where unequal power relationships are the norm, it’s not unusual to find workplace bullying, nor is it unusual to find passive acceptance of that bullying. For me, the way back to health was to learn everything I could about bullying. I was determined to make a change about how workplace had thought about and addressed this issue, but the information I found was simplistic and rudimentary. For example, the standard response to the problem of bullying is to redefine the problem so that it becomes easier to deal with.
Let me repeat that: redefining the problem of bullying makes it easier to deal with; for instance, labeling a problem between two people as personality conflict, or labeling a person as a bad apple. In these scenarios, we cast one person as the victim and the other, the villain, and it leads to finding someone is right and someone is wrong, and it never gets to the heart of why the bullying occurs in the first place, and nor does it take into account the interconnections between people and the culture they work in.
Take Clarkson’s example. His inappropriate behavior had been allowed to continue for years. Just warning Clarkson to improve his behavior was never going to work. I think BBC management needed to spell out appropriate behavioral expectations for Clarkson, and, if he didn’t behave appropriately, then they needed to call him on it immediately. It’s an employee’s responsibility to behave appropriately, but it’s a management’s responsibility to bring inappropriate behavior to an employee’s attention and, if necessary, provide training. This whole situation could have been avoided.
Bullying is complex and cannot be understood in isolation. It forms part of a complex set of interplays between culture, people, behavior and work practices, and the way the pair is constructed underpins all these relationships. I believe we need to develop a holistic view of the interconnections and how they shape and influence all the people in the conflict. Bullying negatively impacts health, and has high personal, social and organizational costs. Health impacts can range from minor to severe, and can last long after the bullying has ceased. Unlike physical injuries, many impacts of bullying go unnoticed, and the longer they go unnoticed the more severe they become.
So, if bullying isn’t about blame, what can we do to change this system? We currently look for evidence of bullying and ask on the balance of probabilities which scenario is more probable. This creates an adversarial position and leads to finding someone who’s right and someone who’s wrong, and it puts the victim-villain narratives into stage. It’s blaming and ultimately divisive. The process can easily reproduce the very behaviors it seeks to address. Not only does it reproduce them, but it also reinforces them. Many clients have told me that they felt more damaged by the complaint process than the actual bullying incidents, and, unlike physical injuries, complainants are required to prove and demonstrate their psychological damage has been caused by the bullying. I think we can manage this differently.