A Perfect Storm: The Rise In Bullying Claims In the Context of Change

With Dr Brigid Nossal & Wendy Harding
National Institute of Organisation Dynamics Australia.

This session was a reflection of Brigid and Fred Wright’s paper on the rise of bullying claims arising from the implementation of major organisational change. They examined the impact on parties involved and the legislated processes that had to be followed when a bullying complaint was made. In the examples discussed, bullying arose from new managers implementing major change before getting to know and understand their organisation and with the loss of senior managerial support.

At a broader level their investigations revealed that:
• Bullying costs business between $6-36 Billion per year (Productivity Commission- 2014)
• Claims for psychological injuries, by 2015, in the workplace increased by 48 % over the previous four years
• In the 1st quarter of 2016 at the Fair Work Commission there were:
o 170 applications made for an order to stop bullying
o 87 were withdrawn prior to proceedings
o 58 were withdrawn or resolved early in proceedings
o 10 were dismissed during proceedings
o 1 application was upheld – no order
o 132 of alleged bullying claims were against managers/group of managers.

The conclusion being that the legislation enabled claims of bullying without necessarily effectively addressing the claimed behaviour.

In their case studies they found:
• The impersonal and legalistic process used to resolve bullying complaints left parties shattered e.g. a manager accused of bullying was quoted as saying “I felt completely hollowed out, like a shell just going through the motions. I felt no desire except to sleep or kill myself.”
• When genuine bullying occurred the victims were so victimized that they rarely sought redress

In regard to bullying itself Brigid and Fred suggested the key precursors to the phenomena are turbulence, and the rise of the “pristine self. The’ pristine self’ occurs when infants are overprotected and do not experience sufficient loss of gratification to develop a healthy ego. Narcissism is the result, and an inability to tolerate any frustration; any challenge to the ego is seen as bad. Even legitimate management action is seen as bullying, to this fragile ego.

Answers for organisations and managers included creating an environment that assists staff to make sense / meaning of the strong emotions in the workplace and help them think and find the space and time to build an appropriate holding environment as well as slowing the pace of action sufficiently to contain the anxiety to creates a bridge between the past and the future.

They also suggested that to move beyond bullying required:
• Effective intervention
• Different language as the current language undermines the goal
o The term Bullying is limiting – creates victims and perpetrators
o The term immediately vilifies the accused person – diminishes thinking
o Victim – renders powerless (with little chance / need to reflect)
• Resources to determine whether behaviour fits definition
• If does not fit definition – no intervention or consequence

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