Bullying--The Other "B" Word
We used to think of unpleasant folks as boorish. Their behavior was irritating, but most of us either called them on their rudeness or let it roll off our backs. Lately people have started confusing surliness and poor manners with something far more harmful and perceiving themselves, unnecessarily, as victims.
Not long ago if another nurse rolled her eyes when you gave report, cut you off while you were asking a question, or ignored you when said you needed help wasting a narcotic, she would have been called the "b" word that rhymes with "itch," (hereafter referred to as "witch" in deference to the Terms of Service.)
Today she's more likely to be called another "b" word--"bully."
Some propose that a bully is nothing more than a witch writ large, that the roles differ primarily by degree. If that were true, we might expect to see government bodies considering anti-witchiness legislation and mounting campaigns against crabby and crotchety behavior similar to the anti-bullying measures they're crafting now. Nip surliness in the bud so it never goes any further. Or so that line of thinking would suggest.
That line of thinking is wrong.
What makes bullying more than incivility on steroids?
Bullying frequently (though not always) involves an imbalance of power. An instructor over a student. A manager over an employee. A person who is physically stronger or who has greater resources over another who can't fight back without great risk or who can't fight back at all. Bullies frequently single out a vulnerable individual and communicate to bystanders that they, too, can come under fire if they choose to get involved.
Bullies have an agenda. They aren't just gruff or full of guff. They're out to get you. They make threats, implying--or telling you outright--that your grade or your job or your safety is on the line. They make it known that they have it in for you, with or without a precipitating cause. Just the fact that you showed up might be reason enough. Even if they can cite a "valid" motive, their response is out of proportion. They don't just want to tease or embarrass you. They're after pure humiliation and fear.
Bullies are often relentless. There's no negotiating with someone who wants to keep you in their cross-hairs. You can't patch things up with a person who says your presence, or even your existence, is the problem.
By contrast, people who are simply rude and obnoxious aren't trying to extort something from you or get you fired or see that you flunk out of school. They may well outrank you and treat you unfairly at times, but that's because they handle their authority poorly, not because they intend to cause you harm.
The cantankerous can snit and snort and snarl like dogs, but they don't paint a target on your back and hound you till you fear for your personal or professional safety. They might ruin your lunch break but they aren't out to take you down. The grumpy rarely have a grudge against just one person, while the bully's focus is narrowed to an individual or a small group.
Another person's witchiness can hurt. A lot. But discomfort isn't damage. And much as we might like to deny our own feet of clay, most of us will admit to having a few witchy moments (days) ourselves. I don't think we'd say the same about bullying.
Confusing rudeness with bullying creates an atmosphere in which the recipients feel far more victimized than the situation deserves. They think, "Oh, no! I'm being bullied!" rather than, "Who peed on her cornflakes?" This mindset can generate fear when irritation is more appropriate and can actually invite further bad behavior.
Loutish classmates or co-workers are just asking for others to stand up to them, refuse to be cowed by their snarkiness, and set some limits (not always wise with a bully). The whole group can benefit when the ill-tempered are called on their bad behavior. But if you convince yourself that you're dealing with a bully when you're not, you'll probably back away and start feeling oppressed.
Some of this misunderstanding can be traced to a lack of security and confidence in people who are more used to dealing with praise than with correction. Grouchy responses can feel like outright hostility if you are accustomed to a high level of affirmation and reassurance. Even simple, non-malicious disagreement can be perceived as bullying when the delivery is blunt.
Wouldn't we all be better off if everyone was kinder and gentler?
We might, but with political correctness already running amok, imagine the morass of legislation and litigation it would take to enforce a "niceness" mandate.
Genuine bullying is, unfortunately, a horrible reality in this world, and its solutions are fodder for many more articles. But, surely, the first step is to strip away distraction, oversimplification, and inaccurate claims. Referring to merely disagreeable behavior as bullying muddies the waters when the real thing comes along. If superiors get handed enough unwarranted complaints, if students and staff members have cried "Bully!" when what they really meant was, "She's such a witch!"--the powers that be may not investigate fully or take true aggression seriously.
Adults need to learn the difference between someone who makes them feel bad and someone who poses a real threat to their well being.
Witchiness and bullying aren't the same thing. And the distinction is worth preserving.
How To Spot a Workplace Bully, Part One
How To Spot a Workplace Bully, Part Two
Last edit by Joe V on Apr 18, '16
Oct 5, '11Well stated. May people want to go to the extreem when they #1 Don't like someone #2 Disagree with someone. There are many examples of this in society including witch vs bully. Extreem behavior whether antagonist or victim are good ways for the rest of society to ignore true attrocities.
Work it out or ignore it unless it is a true situation of "the writting is on the wall or on my back with concentric circles."Oct 5, '11Miranda, as always..........you NAILED it!!! Well-written and extremely helpful in distinguishing true bullying from mere cattiness or unpleasant interpersonal relationships. I hope everyone reads this and learns something.Oct 5, '11Thanks, guys, for the input
I wrote this because I have seen so many "bully" complaints that were really reactions to someone's rudeness. We're all so Kumbyah and Kool-Aid these days that people have either forgotten, or were never taught in the first place, how to take care of themselves and their tender feelings, so a brusque exchange now rubs against them like sandpaper.
As soon as the new "B" word enters the picture, you have folks who freak. Most of the time a few lessons in snappy comebacks or zen calmness would take care of things. But without that, and without the ability to distinguish between a witchy co-worker and a bully, things can get ugly fast.
Let me just add that this article is directed toward adults. Kids have a whole different dynamic that I don't even want to approach. But grown-ups need to learn how to take care of themselves in the school and work worlds without feeling persecuted when some curmudgeon gives them a hard time.Last edit by rn/writer on Feb 19, '12Oct 5, '11"confusing rudeness with bullying creates an atmosphere in which the recipients feel far more victimized than the situation deserves. they think, "i'm being bullied!" rather than, "who peed on her cornflakes?" this mindset can generate fear when irritation is more appropriate and can actually invite further bad behavior.
some of this misunderstanding can be traced to a lack of security and confidence in people who are more used to dealing with praise than with correction. grouchy responses can feel like outright hostility if you are accustomed to a high level of affirmation and reassurance. even simple, non-malicious disagreement can be perceived as bullying when the delivery is blunt."
this is what i've been saying for years, but you've said it better.Oct 5, '11Although I agree that children should be protected against bullying, we learn most of our survival lessons at a young age. I think the whole world has jumped on the bully bandwagon. As nurses we need to be assertive, but this can be easily misunderstood as bullying. I began in the old days when docs could say anything they wanted to and get away with it. The word bully never came up. We just thought that "maybe he had a bad day" or we would go home and kick the cat. Thank goodness those days are over; however, we continue to work in a high stress field and sometimes it is difficult to be "sticky sweet" all of the time.Oct 5, '11Fantastic job of clarifying these concepts, and explaining how our confusion between the two can create such dysfunction in the workplace -- and in our personal lives. Thank you for writing this.Oct 5, '11Good article!
I've been surprised by the number of nurses reporting they went home and cried. Some of the problems you mention never seem to get mitigated by nurse managers. They don't seem to get involved and let the workers fight it out or however its handled these days. During my NM stint, I made it clear I was building a team and at any point if a patient complained of staff rudeness or a new employee did, I looked into it--and reported my findings to the accused. I also made it crystal clear what would not be tolerated and I watched for a return of the behavior. A second complaint and I separated them from their enablers and I moved them to shifts they didn't want.
Rude nurses and bullies aren't needed; I do understand personal problems an illness can change personality, but workers can't expect an entire group of people to be miserable for them. I'm not saying I ever changed the mind of a bully, but I know for a fact I created a worker friendly unit of professionals. Bullies controlled their behavior or they left. I had a waiting list for openings during a nursing shortage.
When I left management, I never worked for a NM that let workers stink up the staff cohesion. Life is just too short and stress takes it toll to put up with a toxic workplace.Oct 5, '11Great post! I actually thought that I was a bully for awhile too, because I had my moments, as we all do, and I thought bullies were just mean to people.
But looking back, I can definitely see the distinction. People have snappy moments. Bullies have a long-term goal in mind. Thanks again!Oct 6, '11Sorry but I have to disagree with you. The definition of a bully is NOT that a person must be actively out to cause significant harm to you, i.e. losing your job.
I pulled some of this from Wikipedia because I am too tired to re-summarize someone else's research:
"Bullying behavior may include name calling, verbal or written abuse, exclusion from activities, exclusion from social situations, physical abuse, or coercion. Bullies may behave this way to be perceived as popular or tough or to get attention. They may bully out of jealousy or be acting out because they themselves are bullied.
U.S. National Center for Education Statistics suggests that bullying can be classified into two categories: Direct bullying, and indirect bullying (which is also known as social aggression).
Ross states that direct bullying involves a great deal of physical aggression, such as shoving and poking, throwing things, slapping, choking, punching and kicking, beating, stabbing, pulling hair, scratching, biting, scraping, and pinching.
He also suggests that social aggression or indirect bullying is characterized by threatening the victim into social isolation. This isolation is achieved through a wide variety of techniques, including spreading gossip, refusing to socialize with the victim, bullying other people who wish to socialize with the victim, and criticizing the victim's manner of dress and other socially-significant markers (including the victim's race, religion, disability, sex, or sexual preference, etc.). Ross outlines other forms of indirect bullying which are more subtle and more likely to be verbal, such as name calling, the silent treatment, arguing others into submission, manipulation, gossip/false gossip, lies, rumors/false rumors, staring, giggling, laughing at the victim, saying certain words that trigger a reaction from a past event, and mocking. The UK based children's charity, Act Against Bullying, was set up in 2003 to help children who were victims of this type of bullying by researching and publishing coping skills.
It has been noted that there tend to be differences in how bullying manifests itself between the sexes. Males tend to be more likely to be physically aggressive whereas females tend to favour exclusion and mockery, though it has been noticed that females are becoming more physical in their bullying."
In today's world, its important to consider not only what perceived benefit you derive from your behavior in the workplace but also what the direct result of that behavior is on those that work directly with you and under your authority.
As we are all aware, you can't claim ignorance of the law as defense. You can not tell the officer, "Well, I just didn't KNOW that the speed limit was thus and such..." and similarly, you can not claim that you didn't bully someone just because your intent wasn't to cause them to lose their job.
Regardless of the intent if the effect was that the person felt excluded or isolated from professional activities then you, in fact, bullied that person.Oct 6, '11This was a succinct article, clarifying the two B's. Thank you! Such a difference between a personality conflict and true bullying. Bullying certainly is the nurse who is in a position of authority who has targeted you, and whose main goal is not mutual respect, but puts you in a position of being in fear of being thrown under the bus. I've seen a number of posts here where nurses have asked "when do I know if I should be looking for another job?" If you have an inkling that your license is at risk because of the other nurses' behavior toward you, it's probably time. I've seen bullying become "mobbing" when the bully is able to swing other nurses to her way of thinking, and/or is good friends with management. Then, IMO, it's time to cut your losses and look elsewhere. You should be able to leave your job at the end of the day, and retain your peace. Nothing is worth your loss of peace.Oct 6, '11Absolutely on target! Fantastic article and well put.
As it was once said,"Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission." The fact is we have to own our choices on how we feel. Victimization has never helped anyone. Even a true Victim gets counseling to learn to cope and move past the pain and hurt.
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