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.
Anecdotal evidence from participants in training sessions over the years suggests that bullying is a regular occurrence in the workplace. And most of us have been observers – so we have seen, heard or been told about a problem, but haven’t been directly impacted ourselves. It’s an interesting position to be in – as an observer we typically don’t experience the same level of negative emotional impact as the receiver (the individual who feels bullied) and that may make it easier for us to intervene to try and address the problem.
My memory of being in an observer position dates to the late 1990s, when I was a junior lawyer in a busy City firm. The team was large and despite a couple of egos, we all seemed to get on well and I felt we had a good working atmosphere, where people generally treated each other with respect. The particular events occurred one Monday morning following an office move over the weekend. Most people arrived earlier than usual to make sure they had the office (and desk!) they had been promised, as well as to unpack and get their new space organised. Fortunately everything seemed to have gone according to plan and there were no “biros at dawn” over missing out on a prized window seat.
Everything that is apart from an incident about computer allocation. At the time, although we all had our own desktop PC, some were newer and shinier than others. One of the trainees in the team, let’s call her, Sally, was fortunate to have a new PC. And her PC had been moved to her desk in her new office. However, one of the team, a junior associate, had designs on that particular PC. So that morning he marched into Sally’s office and proceeded to remove the PC and take it to his new desk. When Sally queried this, he told her that as a trainee she couldn’t expect to have the best equipment and not to worry, he’d bring in his older PC to replace it.
Now Sally was not someone who minded too much about the particular PC she had. But she was shaken and upset by the way he had “pulled rank”. I did not witness the exchange but did see Sally immediately afterwards when she was feeling shocked and undermined by the incident. She relayed what had happened and then immediately said it was fine – it was only a PC – it really didn’t matter.
Her reaction struck a chord with me – I identified with that sense of not wanting to rock the boat, or make a fuss. And isn’t that unwillingness by receivers and observers to say or do anything a key reason why so often actors don’t realise the impact of what they’ve done or said? As well as the fact of Sally’s upset, I felt strongly that this was not the sort of treatment I wanted in the team I worked in – so I decided to say something to the associate. I did feel irritated by his behaviour, but tried to remain calm. He and I, although not close, did rub along ok, plus we were peers, so I felt no real difficulty in being able to approach him.
Our exchange was short – I admired his PC which was only moments ago on Sally’s desk and asked why he’d taken it. He was (unusually for him) lost for words. I suggested that it wasn’t ok to remove a colleague’s equipment based on seniority and asked him to put it back – and he did. He also apologised – I just don’t think it had occurred to him for a moment that the impact of his behaviour had been much more significant than Sally just having a slightly older PC to work on.
Sally and I both felt a real sense of achievement and empowerment. I’m mindful that Sally, having been put down, didn’t feel able to challenge him and indeed, she wasn’t keen for me to do it either. I’m also aware that had he been more senior, a partner maybe, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to challenge the behaviour in the way I did. And that’s the reality – how we as observers react in each situation depends on so many factors. What I did take from it though is that as an observer you really do have influence to help both actors and receivers - you can usually do or say something that will make a difference . And that’s something powerful that’s always stayed with me.