Micro Aggression at Work: Are you supporting workplace bullying?

Yesterday was pink shirt day…aka anti-bullying day. Kids across Canada sported pink t-shirts and talked about how to be kinder to each other. In the parallel grownup world, we introduce Bill 168 to stop workplace harassment. All good moves but in my experience as both as a parent and working adult, once put into the spotlight, bullying has a tendency to go underground. Many people at work are being robbed of their self-confidence through a subtle form of workplace bullying which I’m going to call micro aggressions.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my 12 year old was having a hard time from some ‘mean girls’ in her class. The issues got surfaced, kids were spoken to, tears were shed and promises were made to be kinder and more inclusive. Three months later and instead of it being overt, the bullying has gone underground. My daughter deals with what the school has labelled ‘micro aggressions’ on a daily basis. Little actions that – independently – look like ‘no big deal’ but over time add up to diminished confidence and self-esteem. In her world, kids move seats to sit with another group; they whisper and don’t share what’s been discussed; don’t invite her to lunch and, exclude her from tags on Instagram photos. It’s brutal.

Overt bullying in organizations is easy to deal with. Someone screams at you, someone hits you, someone harasses you publically… you’ve got lots of recourse. What’s harder – and much more insidious – are smaller actions that add up overtime (micro aggressions). For example: your leader doesn’t like you so they give you a lousy performance review (nothing too horrible but just enough to affect your brand) or they badmouth you to other influential people through the guise of trying to be ‘helpful’ (ie: ‘Oh sure, Ellen’s great… we just need to work on her ability to drive to deadlines’). They leave you out of key meetings ‘by accident’. They red pen your work perpetually. They take credit for your work or idea.

All of these small actions, especially when delivered by someone who you know doesn’t like you, can –overtime – erode your self-confidence. And, if you’re not careful, become a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to a career derailment. You start questioning your abilities and live up to the low bar set by your bullying boss.

Bullying is all about power and people who hold leadership roles can sometimes wield that power in a negative way. Usually, those around the bully and the victim know exactly what’s going on (‘Boy, John really doesn’t like Susan’ or ‘Don’t get on Joe’s badside…he’ll blacklist you.’) Many bully’s in organizations have a very clear reputation. Usually they are people who know how to get shit done so people higher up the food chain like them. Because of that, they hold power beyond their positional power. This power causes the people around the person to stand by and say nothing. They can see that a colleague is being ‘picked on’ but, rather than step up and say something – they keep quiet out of fear of losing their own status and/or potentially becoming the target themselves.

If you’re in a situation where you’re being subtly bullied by a senior leader, your best move is frankly to get away from that person with your reputation intact. Expand your network and build allies beyond your area. Make sure other people have first-hand experience with your work as much as you can. Don’t let your bullying boss be the only person who can offer a perspective on your performance.

For the rest of us who see a colleague being unfairly treated, please don’t be a coward. Find ways to share your concerns with others in more influential ranks who may listen. One of the things I’ve learned about bullying through my daughter’s experience is that if things aren’t dealt with, they start to poison the entire environment. Find someone who has more power than the bully and get their advice on how to handle the situation. Confronting the bully head on likely won’t work and – if that person’s a high performer – you’re going to need quite a few allies who see through the behaviour to convince senior leaders there’s a problem. If your company has a strong set of corporate values, be sure to use them as a foundation for voicing your concerns.

Does this feel like a political play? Well, it probably is. The problem for many of us is that we don’t like to acknowledge that organizations – by their very nature – are political. Even companies that I’ve been in that espouse the fact that they’re ‘not political’ end up being political. Bully’s are typically well versed at playing the game which is why they get away with what they do.

As leaders, we have an obligation to do our best to weed out this type of subversive bullying behaviour. I don’t think that’s easy to do but maybe if we try to be kind and non-judgmental ourselves…maybe if we ask questions and don’t take comments about other people at face value. If we dig deeper into situations to understand ALL perspectives, not just the perspective of the ‘bully’… maybe we’d get a little closer to the truth and to taking away the power from these kinds of people.

Don’t be a bystander.

Happy leading!