byrne·dean is proud to support the campaign to raise awareness of the impact of bullying in all walks of life. As an organisation we help our clients to create kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces and so this campaign has particular relevance to our work and belief systems.
Soon after joining one of my past employers, I noticed that a junior graduate colleague (let's call her Joanne) in my team was often quiet, withdrawn and occasionally tearful at work. I asked her a number of times, "How are you?", and she always replied, “I’m fine”. She clearly wasn’t “fine”, but I didn’t want to pry. I rationalised that she was obviously a private person and and maybe something was going on outside work that she didn't want to talk about, so I didn't dig any deeper. If I'm honest, though, my instincts told me that it was work-related. However, I was still finding my feet in my new role and very stretched meeting daily deadlines, so I buried my head in the sand and hoped that everything would blow over.
The truth came pouring out many months later when we were at an offsite event. She told me that her manager (let's call him Andrew) was unfairly critical of her work, micro-managing her and not giving her any recognition or positive feedback about her contribution to the team (which in my view went well beyond what was expected of her pay grade). She told me how miserable this was making her; how it was impacting on her relationship with her partner, that she was feeling anxious and depressed, and dreaded coming to work every day. She was clearly in, what we call at byrne-dean, a "destructive cycle". I didn't doubt the truth of what she was saying as by this time I'd seen plenty of examples of it myself.
So what did I do as an Observer in this situation? With hindsight, not enough. When she finally opened up to me, I thought all I could do was listen and advise her to be honest with him about how she was feeling. She, understandably, was reluctant to raise the issue with him, for fear of getting emotional or angry, repercussions, reprisals, making it worse etc. So, for several months, we continued to discuss the issue and each time I would urge her to talk to him and impress upon her that nothing would change if she didn't.
Eventually, prior to her annual appraisal, she sent Andrew a long email cataloguing her grievances. However, by this time, she was so angry that her email, which came out of the blue, made him defensive. Andrew was surprised and couldn’t understand why she had never spoken to him about any of this before. He also said to me that he was just a "glass half full" kind of guy, that she was being oversensitive and would have to grow a thicker skin if she was going to be successful in her chosen career. In my experience, these are typical things for bullies to say; their focus being on the intent behind their behaviour rather than the (negative) impact of it on those around them.
Fortunately, after a lot of careful discussion, things improved slightly - it wasn't a huge transformation, but they started having regular one-to-ones, my colleague got better at speaking up and Andrew became better at listening to her feedback. And notably, her demeanour changed - she went from being moody and defensive to more confident and calm.
I often reflect on why I didn't do more as an Observer in this situation. I had seen first hand plenty of examples of Andrew's unhelpful treatment of my colleague (and others) and I could have called him out on it, either publicly or privately. So why didn't I? I suppose I just didn't feel it was my place, I didn't want to get involved, I was too busy, and, truthfully, I didn't want to have awkward and difficult conversations. I'm happy to say though that I learned my lesson - when a new colleague joined (to replace Joanne, when she eventually left) and I saw history starting to repeat itself, I did step in from the beginning and possibly stopped it going the same way.
I now passionately believe that Observers play a significant role in stamping out bullying in the workplace - they are impartial and objective and can really make a difference if they are willing to stick their heads above the parapet and call out inappropriate behaviour. After all, it’s their workplace too.