Home » How I Didn’t Become a Victim to Bullying: Caroline Dean at TEDxQueenstown (Transcript)

How I Didn’t Become a Victim to Bullying: Caroline Dean at TEDxQueenstown (Transcript)

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Caroline Dean

Following is the full transcript of workplace conflict and bullying consultant, Caroline Dean’s TEDx Talk: How I Didn’t Become a Victim to Bullying at TEDxQueenstown conference. This event occurred on April 19, 2015.

Caroline Dean – Workplace conflict and bullying consultant

Today, I’m going to tell you my story. And it’s the first time I’ve spoken publicly about it. Thank you.

And I’m feeling quite apprehensive about it. And, as Mary said, it’s actually been far more challenging getting to this point than I had realized. I felt fine about it, until I got to New Zealand. And, as the days got closer, I’ve got even less fine about it.

Last month, Jeremy Clarkson, who’s a Top Gear host, punched his producer in the face, and he was fired. He’d been warned multiple times about his behavior. In 2014, he was given a final warning. One million people petitioned BBC to have him reinstated, but, if you notice, the producer is missing from the conversation. We don’t know what kind of impact this has had on him, but we do know that Clarkson’s fans have blamed him for this situation. He’s been relentlessly pursued on social media.

The question I ask all of you is: who’s the victim and who’s the villain in this scenario? And just because Clarkson’s popular and famous doesn’t make what he did right. I’ve always been fascinated by right and wrong. At 10, I wrote a short story about what it would be like to be in solitary confinement. I wondered what it would be like to live in a small cell that I couldn’t leave. In my 30s, I taught life skills to minimum security prisoners on day release.

At university, I studied crime and criminal justice. And some years later, I went to work in a maximum security prison. It was the most interesting and exciting job I’d ever had, but it was also the hardest. A coronial report into suicides of five male prisoners, in a four-month period, found gross inadequacies in the system. The recommendation to change from warehousing prisoners to rehabilitation was why I was employed. My role was to develop pre and post-release programs to support long-term prisoners ready to get back into the community. I was full of idealism, ideas and energy. And, though I thought I knew what it would be like to work in a maximum security prison, I really had no idea. It was the most toxic and boiling system I’d ever worked in. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, but it would redefine my work from here on in, and it opened my eyes to a world of bullying and gave me the idea that we should be addressing bullying differently.

While I worked at the prison, I was bullied every day. Some days it was subtle, and I wondered if I’d imagined it. At other times, it was very direct. I was accused of trafficking contraband items, I was investigated routinely for alleged security violations, I was verbally threatened, and I was physically cornered. I felt safer in the company of prisoners than I did with my own colleagues, and I built relationships with them based on respect and compassion. They trusted me and, for the most part, I trusted them.

By contrast, my colleagues operated as separate individuals. Everyone was out for themselves. There was zero trust, and we were pitted against each other. When I couldn’t summon the energy to go into the prison, I took refuge in my office outside the prison grounds. My resilience lowered – pardon me – and I was emotionally exhausted. I operated in a state of hypervigilance and fear, even when I wasn’t at work. I expected the worst all the time. It affected me, my family and my relationships, and it took over my life completely. I worked in the prison for four years, and, when I left, the bullying still didn’t stop.

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.

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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.

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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.

I devised a process that, rather than finding a villain-victim, looks to the culture, the structural mechanisms, the behavior expectations and workplace practices, and seeks answers from those things. It doesn’t assign blame, and it shifts the focus from the bully to the bullying behavior. This means that we understand the bullying behavior is a symptom of a toxic culture as the problem, rather than the person as the problem. This allows personal blame to be removed from the equation, and replaced with personal accountability and organizational responsibility. Most people develop insight into how they’ve blamed someone fairly quickly, and they’re horrified when they learn how and in what way they’ve caused harm.

In my experience, most people act from a lack of interpersonal skill, a lack of self-awareness and the inability to self-reflect. They don’t act from a place that means to cause deliberate harm. My approach moves from an individual focus to a system’s focus, meaning responsibility for what is shared is shared among all involved, but it also comes from a place that says bullying behavior is learned and, therefore, can be unlearned. The focus is on the whole of cultural response that restores and heals macro and micro relationships, and it needs three main ingredients to be successful. My experience in using this approach has been encouraging. An example of this is an organization I’ve been working with. Using root-cause analysis, I identified three problem areas in the organization. The solutions included: new systems developed to manage and prevent conflict; individual conflict coaching and leadership coaching was applied; and teams engaged in restorative relationship building and communication practices.

After six months, I hardly know the place, and neither did the workers. Congratulations must go to my client and their employees for committing to a process that’s a complete paradigm shift from the way that they would normally handle conflict. In future, they have the skills, understanding and strategies to effectively address conflict issues. Staff and management have changed the way that they understand, see and approach conflict, and, even better, conflict is dealt with proactively and early.

By removing the blame and punitive processes and replacing them with a preventative focus, the whole organization is able to build a culture that expects and reinforces respectful behavior. For me, an unintended consequence of this way of working has been that it also changes the way people see and deal with conflict in other areas of their lives.

My clients tell me that they now have a transferable set of skills that they can use and pass on to others, especially their children. We have an opportunity to shift from the victim-villain narrative and move to a unified system that respects all parties and perspectives. Thank you.

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