Bullying & strategic incompetence: an exploration

Bullying behaviour almost always flourishes and becomes embedded in organisations that repeatedly validate and reward strategic incompetence (various definitions at end of article). The reason for this is because most people who bully in workplaces do so because they feel under threat (insecurity, jealously, envy etc) from other colleagues. This isn’t about being rude when under pressure or being short with someone because you are tired. Bullying is clear, repeated patterns of behaviour (which almost anyone should be able to identify) targeted at others that serves to undermine, humiliate, spread falsehood, disrupt, antagonise and eventually get rid of. Instead of seeing skilled and dedicated employees as a way to change working practices for the better – for staff and service users – those who bully often view it as a personal threat to established positions of power, status, traditional working practices they are comfortable with and networks that support this. Bullies are always in a privileged position one way or another.

The UK Health and Safety Executive and teams of researchers in different organisations continue to churn out reports demonstrating that public sector organisations have the highest levels of bullying behaviour and spiralling levels of stress – contributing to unmanageable sickness absence levels and costs. It is hard to imagine profit-driven executives putting up with this level of disruption, but it is easy to see why those charged with simply curbing costs, might.

There are a high proportion of people in the public sector who have not received updated/regular people skills training or emotional intelligence assessments, or even basic people management skills. And, anytime an organisation tries to implement progressive structural change, there will be a concurrent rise in bullying behaviour. It is also interesting that almost all National Health Service (NHS) organisations trying to implement cultural change to address these issues, will contract the work out, rather than actually identifying, engaging and empowering competent employees to make the changes so they become embedded and a support structure forms. Having external consultants is no threat to established workplace networks that support bullying behaviour, however, internal challenges to these networks would.

Reading the recent survey from the National Freedom to Speak Up Guardian (2018) and the British Medical Association (BMA) report on bullying (BMA bullying and harassment report 2018) you would probably find yourself asking how can anything else get done in the NHS. Under pressure and being bullied does not make for informed decision-making. Under these conditions temporary cognitive decline is predictable, logical thinking is impaired and mistakes will be made. That’s just common sense even without studies that confirm it. Civility Saves Lives has a range of resources that touch on this if you need more. I myself have a lengthy research reference list that you are welcome to contact me for.

If a particular NHS organisation is showing high (reported) levels of bullying you just need to check how those areas have been rated e.g. financially, patient feedback, staff surveys, union observations, exit interviews, equality metrics, grievance cases, thoughts of Black and Minority Ethnic staff etc. Poor or inconsistent ratings and skewed financial management are good indicators of levels of bullying, levels of staff turnover and a decline in the overall empathetic capacity of staff in an organisation.

It’s not like any of this is news. Roger Kline’s paper on the estimated cost to the NHS of £2.3 billion, may be eye-watering to those who can imagine what can be done with that amount of tax payers money instead, but it does not trouble or sadden me as much as the thought of destroyed careers and lives, stress on children, family and friends, suicides, long-term health problems, substance abuse, mounting costs in primary care to treat people and keep them at work, the reputation of an institution and the injustice of rewarding and validating bullying behaviour at the expense of dedication and competency. Decades of research in healthcare, and in the NHS, has demonstrated consistently how destructive bullying behaviour can be to:

  • staff health and morale
  • patient safety and organisational culture
  • finances
  • equality standards
  • professional standards.

The challenge to the NHS and other similar organisations

a) Support groups, therapists and clinicians will advise the target to spend as little time as possible with the bully. Result: the dedicated people leave the workplace and while trying to, they spend all their time looking for exit strategies. And that’s not all. Witnessing bullying is damaging too. Those who routinely watch it happen also leave or choose to mimic bullying behaviour or display incompetence to reduce the chances of them being bullied too.

b) HR advisors generally ask staff to report the bullying behaviour. Result: the competent person wastes upwards of 1 year of their life going to investigations, meetings and retelling the traumatic experiences over and over again. Their time is wasted, they have to live through the emotional pain again and their career is stalled – they may even be moved. The majority of bullies are in senior positions. So we have the presumption that junior staff, having been through bullying and still subject to it, should just challenge their managers, speak up and everything will be fine. How many people who write bullying policies would be willing to risk their livelihood and jobs and future career development?

c) 70% of the workforce in the NHS are women. The majority of women are bullied by women. I haven’t seen a single viable initiative coming through about focussed behaviour change targeted at women in the NHS. Not one. Because, bullying behaviour is demonstrated, managed and dished out differently based on social constructions of gender. There is a difference in style, in the types of networks used to validate established bullies in terms of male frameworks of power compared with female. The majority of informal networks in the NHS are gender-based. Also, the way women are socially ‘taught/conditioned’ to challenge bullying behaviour is very different to the response expected from men (I’m not including gender outlaws here). So it really is no surprise for example, that female junior doctors who are bullied often leave their chosen career path quickly and male junior doctors bullied are less likely to report anything at all.

d) Anti-bullying groups also provide a range of strategies that targets can use: distancing themselves, telling themselves it is not about them, ignoring the bully, building resilience, thinking of different ways to talk to the bully., not showing their emotions, trying to reach out for support, using different styles of communication, going on coping training courses, getting a therapist etc. To me this means that employers expect the competent person to waste their time, money, energy and emotions dealing with negative behaviour rather than doing their job and focussing on their career. The costs can be high – the target is forced to display behaviour responses that are not aligned to what they are experiencing. That pain is going to be expressed one way or another, even if it is many years down the line. Psychologists know this; studies confirm this. And, if you think communicating with a bully is your best bet, the chances of getting through to the bully are virtually nil, because as I said earlier bullies want their targets gone. Once you accept this, you start to see bullying behaviour as a serious violation of the rights of others, rather than something we should all expect to cope with.

e) Leadership? Actions speak louder than words. It is the first thing that any leader committed to justice, fairness, respect and dignity displays when they step up. How do leaders demonstrate respect in your organisation? How do they behave? Do they care?

Resources, references, definitions and awareness

What is bullying?

Almost everyone would have been subject to bullying behaviour at some point in their lives. Some people who regularly bully others would have experienced it themselves at some point. So, I often find it disheartening when people suggest I explain what it means. That said, the majority of people take a while before they realise they are being bullied. This is because of our own coping mechanisms to get through different environmental stressors and retain a sense of dignity. Most of the time it will be loved ones or friends or other colleagues that notice changes in our behaviour patterns. They don’t always manage to convince the target of changes in their behaviour. Accepting that you are being bullied is something that a lot of people find hard to admit. It is hurtful to their sense of self, their dignity and their self worth.

How to spot you are being bullied: you will start to doubt your abilities and loose confidence, you may experience mood swings, eventually this will affect your appetite and sleep patterns. Then you will start to feel: confused, dislocated from your environment, scared, isolated and for some, there will be suicidal ideation. In highly pressurised environments (like healthcare settings) it can take longer to attribute these changes in yourself to bullying behaviour rather than everyday stress. And, that is another reason why bullying behaviour is so prevalent in the NHS – people take a while to realise it is happening and by then, they might start to show signs of loosing their temper too easily, being uncivil, being rude – which then perpetuates a cycle and creates truly toxic environments.

Patterns of bullying behaviour: make no mistake – if you are being bullied by someone, it is because they want you gone. They will undermine you, spread false information about your abilities, find allies to help with the bullying, take credit for your work, exclude you,  laugh at you when you are vulnerable, prevent you from progressing, damage your career, waste your time, distract you, make unreasonable demands, shame you and embarrass you in front of others, implement arbitrary rules at random and much more. Like I said they want you gone.

Also, bullying behaviour develops into a pattern and gives those who keep using it an emotional high. The pain of others slowly becomes pleasurable because it gives the perpetrator a power boost and a sense of control. There are different brain chemicals that bullies become addicted to – producing a pleasurable high. In fact if you watch how bullies respond, you can see the satisfaction they derive from watching the pain and confusion in their target. I have even observed long-established workplace bullies rewarding victims the next day with a small gift (e.g. allowing them to go on a training session, allowing them to leave early) – so sometimes, bullying behaviour can lead to trauma bonding. Which is even worse. If this happens in any workplace team or department, you are in trouble as an employer.

At the end of day, the bully certainly can’t control the competency, capabilities or achievements of the victim any other way. I have a lot more to say about bullying behaviour having supported so many people who have gone through it at different points in my career and even when studying. And, what really troubles me is how little interest organisations have in actually doing anything about it. Having recently attended a talk by someone who experienced being bullied over and over again and finally developed a programme to help others, I noticed that there was very little if any empathy for them in the room. Why was that? Yet, when they asked for a show of hands of how many people had experienced bullying in the workplace, two-thirds of attendees raised their hands.

What is strategic incompetence?

Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds. It almost always works to deflect work one doesn’t want to do — without ever having to admit it. In all cases, it’s a ritualistic charade. The only thing the person claiming not to understand really doesn’t understand: That the victim (or person/team) ultimately stuck with the work sees through the false incompetence. (I used a description from an article by Jared Sandberg as it pretty much covers the main intent behind the behaviour.)

Some references 

Respect where it’s due, BMA 2018

Childhood, the brain and the cycle of bullying 2016

Workplace Bullying among Managers: A Multifactorial Perspective and Understanding
J. Antonio Ariza-Montes, Noel M. Muniz R., Antonio L. Leal-Rodríguez, Antonio G. Leal-Millán; Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014 Mar; 11(3): 2657–2682. Published online 2014 Mar 4. doi: 10.3390/ijerph110302657

Perversion at work: organising colleagues against one another, London School of Economics


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