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Can you spot a bully?

Joel Brown is a family physician.

What comes to mind when you hear the word bully? Your mind probably raced back in time to an unpleasant playground encounter, or perhaps you are at the stage in life where your own children tell of their own tearful experiences encountering their ‘best friends’, who clearly use charm and affectionate titles to take advantage of them.

The stereotype of that older, perhaps taller child who picks on smaller children probably comes to mind for most. The problem with stereotypes like these is that they tend to cause us to overlook bullying when it presents in more subtle ways and off the playground.

In fact, the kind of bullying we may not be so good at spotting is corporate bullying — the grown-up kind on the office ‘playground’. We join an organisation, whether a new practice or a role in the voluntary sector, with fresh hopes and dreams to get along and get work done. We enter these corporate spaces with an expectation that our colleagues are well-meaning, fair, and reasonable towards each other, especially when conflict arises.

The problem with stereotypes … is that they tend to cause us to overlook bullying when it presents in more subtle ways …

The truth, however, provides no consolation, as workspaces are too often laden with bullies of all varieties, and I think it’s worth being aware of the different ways they could present in the workplace.

The jealous type — This bully at first seems very interested in what you bring to and do for the team, but as soon as they feel threatened by your skills, ambitions, or achievements, jealousy drives them to undermine you at every venture. It can feel like such a roller coaster as their love affair with your new ideas and presence quickly turns into a fatal attraction.

The convenient confidant — This bully befriends you when you feel isolated or helps you in a pickle, often providing a listening ear to your frustrations. They then feel entitled to your allegiance or support and will quickly turn on you when they can’t manipulate you to do their bidding on their schedule. They will often use your vulnerability against you.

The meticulous critic — This bully just wears you down with criticism and never has anything encouraging or nice to say about you or your work. We all need constructive criticism, but this kind of relentless criticism tends to leave you feeling inadequate rather than empowered to grow.

The duplicitous — This bully is hard to discern because they can appear to be for you mostly in private but will simultaneously undermine you in an underhand but very public way.

We don’t always recognise when we or others are being bullied, and perhaps it’s harder now with all the hybrid/remote ways of working.

The gaslighter — This bully is very cunning and will make you second guess your sanity by questioning your sense of reality, till you start to think you are the problem when you are the victim of an elaborate scheme.

The harasser — This bully may make inappropriate comments based on innuendo, race, or sexuality, and at times this may become physical or sexual.

These categories are by no means exclusive nor comprehensive, and there is certainly scope for overlap. As clinicians, we are taught pattern recognition that makes us exceptionally good at spotting textbook stereotypes. What takes years to refine is discerning the shades of subtlety where the majority of diseases present.

We don’t always recognise when we or others are being bullied, and perhaps it’s harder now with all the hybrid/remote ways of working. But we owe it to ourselves and each other to spot the corporate bully before they strike someone off the edge, out of employment, or even into a mental crisis.

 

Featured photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

The BJGP is the world-leading primary care journal. At BJGP Life we add multi-media comment and opinion for the primary care community.

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