Surviving Adult Bullying – breaking the pattern of emotional terrorism

Surviving adult bullying is hard at any age. It is one of the worst aspects of human behaviour, and we all know that it is wrong, yet it affects people of all ages and classes. Bullying takes many forms and happens everywhere bullies can operate above or below the radar. Essentially bullying behaviour is our innate primate instinct in action. It is operating without being controlled by our higher mental and emotional intelligence, and it works to establish dominance by a process of emotional terrorism.

Emotional Terrorism: undermining by emotional damage

Whether bullies use physical, mental or practical methods to undermine their victim, the ultimate outcome is an emotional wound. People being bullied at work lose performance in both productivity and creativity. Their ability to learn and problem solve is impaired and their confidence in social interactions and team working are impacted. Victims experience stress and illness and all too often leave organisations as a result of emotional trauma. People often carry these wounds for years, and can be seriously affected in both their confidence and their willingness to expose themselves to future risk. Surviving adult bullying is not easy, and some people never recover from the deep seated damage of bullying to their self esteem and confidence.

Turning a blind eye to bullying

Companies and organisations often know that they have a problem, but turn a blind eye. This may be because they feel unequal to the task of effecting change. It may also reflect that the hierarchy is founded on a bullying culture. Bullies are personally invested in the use of bullying as a way of establishing dominance. This means they are not keen on change that threatens their position in the pecking order. Contrary to common stereotypes, bullies can be female as well as male and children can bully intentionally from a very early age. Everyone is hard wired to understand and operate in both bully and victim roles. Anyone can be a bully, in the right circumstances, we just choose not to, and most of us prefer a bully free environment. Surviving adult bullying needs support and training, and these are not provided in organisations that are in denial.

Beating the bully is not a solution

For some organisations the answer to bullying is to stamp down on it and set penalties. Astonishingly, this action is often directed towards the victim for ‘making a fuss’ and ‘causing difficulties’ rather than at the bully. Few organisations are willing to admit that having policy in place is irrelevant, since the application of policy is not working. Anecdotal evidence suggests that failure to act is widespread, and many people believe that the only way to survive adult bullying is to move on. The average cost of replacing an employee in the UK is £12, 000, to say nothing of the cost to productivity. The impact of performance impairment, stress and sick days, plus the impact on reputation, means that failure to address bullying is a running sore on business if unresolved.

The idea that you can bully a bully into compliance is illogical and unproductive. What such an approach establishes is that the people in power have power over those below them, and choose to act or not, according to their whim. This is the essential framework of bullying! It maintains the status quo, while driving the criticised behaviour underground. The only way to escape this trap is through education.

Learning to do things better – making bullying ineffective

Bullying is as old as our nervous system, and that’s very old indeed. The good news is that we have adaptable brains, and we can learn to solve old problems in new ways. We can override our instinctive animal behaviours, which is what bullying is, and we can do this in lots of ways. What we do in any situation will depend on the demands of the time and place we are in. This has resulted in the wonderful range of human cultures around the world, and causes more confusion between us than virtually anything else!

To do this amazing work we need to learn. We are born with basic operating systems and as we grow up, learn new things that build into a fabulous learning algorithm. The quality of your thinking will depend on the quality of your learning experiences. Some people have analytical minds like lasers; others turn for decision making to rock, paper, scissors. People with limited learning are more dependant on the original patterns of behaviour. Bullies are working on a low level of thinking and poor emotional skills. To change this, you need to address both learning and context. You need to teach new skills and change the story to make bullying a poor choice.

Emotional Intelligence – the missing link?

Emotional intelligence training solves the bullying problem from the inside out.
Bullying is driven by emotion, and acts at the level of emotion. When people understand and have the skills to manage their emotional experiences they do not bully. Neither are they likely to be bullied, because bullies cannot hurt them.

Most bullies do not want to bully, they know it is wrong, and often hate that they do it, but they are hooked on the feelings of power they get from bullying. For many bullies bullying gives them a ‘fix’ of temporary confidence that makes their internal confusion and conflict less acute. By providing the skills to manage their internal world, the need to bully disappears. However, encouraging a bully to fix themselves is unlikely to work. You need to take a holistic approach.

Dealing with bullying – a holistic approach

You can tackle bullying at three key points. By developing the victims, the aggressors and the culture.

Working with the victims of bullying

Working with victims is an emergency measure that can support individuals who are being injured by bullying. They can be helped to learn skills, understanding and strategies to cope with the abuse and survive adult bullying. Many clients have come to Helen Campbell for help, and have escaped the problem. (For information on short term coaching with Helen to cope with bullying see Surviving Bullying.) Sadly this has often been by gaining control of their own situation and moving on to a better position. This does nothing to resolve the general situation; they are simply moving to allow the next victim to take the hot seat.

Working with bullies

Working with bullies is usually done by therapists. They usually take a long term approach to achieving healing or may opt for a learning approach. If they fail to address the emotional component of bullying the intervention is unlikely to succeed. Bullies are usually referred to this process as a consequence of complaint and the outcome will be largely dependent on their willingness to cooperate. An alternative approach is to offer coaching in emotional intelligence as a part of the CPD program. Developing better emotional skills reduces internal stresses that lead to bullying behaviour. Ethically and practically the bully must be willing to participate in this process.

Working with the culture

Working with culture is a whole context approach to tackling bullying. Rather than ‘fixing’ the victims or the bullies, it aims to create a context in which bullying is unacceptable because it is a) ineffective and b) causes harm to mutual objectives. This makes bullying a redundant strategy. However, culture development will only work if training or coaching is made available to everybody involved. It’s not just about fixing the skills deficit, but aims to enhance the emotional performance of all concerned.

What is needed is a new concept of emotion and a shared language to discuss it. Bullying is an emotional problem. It needs an emotionally intelligent solution. By developing an emotionally intelligent culture bullying is just one of the problems that cease to be an issue.

Emotionally intelligent culture – advanced learning for enhanced performance

The growing understanding that Emotional Intelligence is the wellspring of wellbeing and creativity makes it’s value to organisations of all kinds obvious. When achieving emotional ‘flow’ is a priority in the environment, the toleration of behaviours that cause emotional damage is untenable. Bullying would be completely anti to the objectives of the organisation. When allied with training in basic EI skills (training that should be undertaken by all staff at some level) then bullying can be replaced with more effective and successful behaviours.

Developing an emotionally intelligent culture is not a sticking plaster solution to a systemic problem. Emotionally intelligent culture building aims to help performance in all areas of the organisation. Emotion is the silent and unseen factor in the room that affects everyone and everything. Learning to understand and work with emotion (rather than tip toeing around it and struggling when it goes wrong) is the secret to improvement in almost everything worth measuring. The good news is that emotional skills can be learned easily and quickly, with immediate and happy results. Even better, the enthusiasm that comes from enjoying the benefits of improved skill can melt away opposition. There is no downside to emotional intelligence.

Surviving Adult Bullying

Bullying can happen to anyone. For details of coaching support for victims of bullying, click Surviving Bullying.

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