Although I’m not an academic and haven’t studied bullying in depth, I’ve experienced it and I’ve also been in situations where, I now recognise, I took a bullying approach. This has led me to consider the difference between accountability and bullying:
The key thing for me is the difference between holding people to account (e.g. by openly discussing problematic beliefs and behaviours) and bullying. Accountable actions are driven by the intention / motivation of helping all involved and building an interconnected community based on honesty and trust. (‘Tough love’ if you like).
Contrast this to the scenario where bullies criticise people without being specific about what’s being questioned, act secretly and withhold information, blacklist people, create over complex rules which can’t be followed and hide behind bureaucracy and hierarchy.
Sepcific bullying behaviours include undermining, whispering campaigns, behind closed doors conversations etc.
In my experience, around the time of my protected disclosure, I was involved in meetings and discussions where those who had set up the meeting had not stated the purpose of the meeting in advance (or on one occasion deliberately misled me). In these meetings they had clearly rehearsed their questions. Questions that were designed to belittle and discredit.
In these cases this seems to be motivated by a desire to hold on to power, deny failings, use ‘playground’ tactics and break connections which aren’t in line with the overall agenda (often not made public).
These behaviours are frequently the result of bullying from higher up the chain, and a culture where leaders are not comfortable with ambiguity.
Bullying in this context is not always recognised as such, and victims are made to feel it may be their fault. This compromises patient safety.
This is a problem which affects all areas of work, not just the UK National Health Service [NHS]. I remain optimistic that, because of the profile this issue now has in the NHS, things are changing. There’s a long way to go yet and many injustices to be rectified.
‘People deal far better with uncertainty and stress when they know what’s going on, even if the information is incomplete and only temporarily correct. Freely circulating information helps create trust, and it turns us into rapid and more effective learners’
Margaret J Wheatley (2007) ‘Finding our Way. Leadership For an Uncertain Time’. Berrett-Kohler Publishers Inc. San Francisco
Author: Steve Turner Updated April 2019.