Addressing both hammer and needle incidents

Hammer and Needle representing metaphor for workplace bullying

Bullying consists of sledge hammers and needles.

Chicago Tribune Columnist, Rex Huppke recently wrote about the impact of workplace bullying.

He stated:

“With workplace bullying, it’s not just the hammers, it’s the day-to-day needles that add up.

 “When it comes to workplace bullying, we often focus on the hammers and not the needles.

 “Hammers are the obvious acts of oafish or even physically violent behavior, the situations where there’s little nuance and a person is clearly being victimized.

 “Needles are the small, repetitive acts that often go unnoticed, and unreported, the needling that can drive someone to dread going to work.

 “The hammers, of course, must be addressed, but letting the needles go unchecked can swiftly turn a workplace toxic.”

The ‘sledge hammer’

The ‘sledge hammer’ incidents reflective of bullying behaviour are obvious and often noticed by others in the workplace. It’s relatively easy to address the ‘sledge hammer’ incidents but what about the ‘needles’?

The ‘needle’

The ‘needle’ type incidents often leave the victim questioning their reactions, with the result that they usually admonish themselves for being weak or a worrier. The victim is less likely to raise a complaint, believing the incidents are minor and nothing can be done.  This is because our current workplace social cues tell the victim there is no use complaining.

Workers will often hint at the behaviour they are being subject to in order to get an indication from others as to what they should be doing about the situation. Instead of colleagues and managers being empathetic, the usual response is, “Don’t worry. That’s just so and so. There’s nothing in it. Just ignore it.”

When workers speak up

Have we ever stopped to think about why our colleague or our direct report has mentioned their situation to us? It takes a lot of courage to do this and yet we usually shoot them down in flames. Of course the worker is worried – that’s why they spoke up. Telling them not to worry is not a form of comfort as we would like to think it is. In fact, when our responses are not empathetic and do not invite the worker to tell us what is happening for them, we are creating discomfort and adding to their distress.

Huppke identifies two major areas of work for HR:

  1. Building trust and respect in leadership and actually providing safe workplaces. Huppke quotes Andrew Faas, author of ‘The Bully’s Trap: Bullying in the Workplace’:

“Where bullying occurs, in 80 percent of the cases, people don’t trust the HR department.”

  1. Involving leadership “to create strategies that will allow for earlier identification of unhealthy workplace environments,” Paul Gionfriddo, Mental Health America’s President and CEO.

In addition to these tips, it is important for our managers, who have had drummed into them the need for resilience, to know that others may not be so resilient. Managers must also be empathetic.

No strategy to combat bullying will be effective without a culture of empathy that acknowledges:

  • “we all hurt sometimes.”
  • “we’re all capable of hurting someone with our words or actions, even if it’s inadvertent,
  • “we’re all at risk of suffering psychologically from the drip-drip-drip of another person’s abuse.”

Help, not hurt

One of the biggest wins for HR is to have the Senior Executive model the expected appropriate behaviours and make it clear the organisation’s values support Huppke’s parting words, “We should strive to help those around us, not hurt them. And we should cast aside cultural constructs that suggest we can’t admit to hurting.”

If our Senior Executives can’t help and not hurt those in the Executive team, or admit to each other when they are hurting, how can they expect other workers to be able to do this?

WPCR can support HR teams with workplace nvestigations into alleged ‘sledge hammer’ and ‘needle’ type bullying behaviours. Through our Workplace Harmony Solutions arm we also offer leadership & values training for Senior Executives and Managers to support the creation of a behavioral culture shift.

Call us on 1300 227 901 or email enquiries@wpcr.com.au for more information.

About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.