Identifying bullying – ‘Secret squirrels’

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). The way in which the person communicates this does not vary depending on who is being spoken to.

‘Secret squirrels’
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.

Specific bullying behaviours include undermining, whispering campaigns, behind closed doors conversations etc.

Look out for cultures where the modus operandı is ‘kiss up – kick down’. If this is the case, the organisation has problems. It will not be able to deliver its aims effectively and may be creating an unsafe environment.

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.

Sounds familiar?

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.

Bullying is a problem which affects all areas of work, and all sectors. I remain optimistic that, because of the profile this issue now has, 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

Last updated: 24.04.2023

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s