I have a passionate and perhaps perverse interest in the area of workplace bullying. People often ask me why I got into the study of workplace bullying. Oddly enough, it’s not because of my personal experiences. Though I have been bullied at work – A LOT in my life (like most people, I tend to think).
Workplace bullying interests me because I get to observe the worst in people and organisational systems. I see lack of conscience, lack of empathy, emotional immaturity, stupidity, self-aggrandisement, maliciousness and meanness. How do people deal with this kind of aggression? That’s interesting to me. It’s the same reason I found the study of personality disorders so fascinating early in my career. This is psychopathology at its worse and rarely treatable. What happens when the darkest of the dark meets the lightest of the light? Narcissists and psychopaths are more likely to target empathic people. People reenact the same drama, all over the world, with predictable dynamics each time.
It continues to surprise me the length of time and degree to which good people tolerate being the target of mean behaviour, although I understand their most compelling reason is the fear of economic uncertainty. I see targets being stuck in some dark places and although I will fight like a Mama Bear to protect them, I do not share their way of thinking about work. Perhaps that’s what makes me such an effective champion of my clients and vicariously experiencing their ordeals doesn’t burn me out.
When I think about it, I realise I adhere to 3 bizarre principles that simultaneously protect me and create a tidy profit each time I go up against a petty tyrant or corrupt organisation. Allow me to explain my principles:
I was 13 years’ old when for a short time, I was the target of a group of mean girls at school. It wasn’t personal; everyone in the class took a turn as a target. Nevertheless, it was terrifying. I suddenly become incontinent and didn’t want to go to school. My father made me go to school anyway and he said gruffly I was a “coward” for not going and to stop being so ridiculous.
One day while wetting my pants on the sports field and feeling my face go as deep a red as the dark maroon patch on my school uniform, I had an epiphany. First, I needed to rush to the toilets and get home before the smell of stale biscuits (what dried urine smells like to me) aroused suspicious enquiries from my classmates and teachers. Secondly, I realised I needed to create a life devoid of regrets if I wanted to reminisce fondly in my dotage. And back then, I wasn’t even a fan of Edith Piaf!
Though it would be years before I discovered existentialism, from that day onwards I was determined to live life to the fullest and to make choices that rewarded me with as much fun as possible, no matter that Aunty Pat’s catchcry (and most of the world’s too, it would seem) was: “Oooooh, you can’t do that!”
Ergo, throughout my life, when something stops being fun or interesting, I stop doing it. If a job was boring, I’d quit. If something pissed me off at work, I got angry, then the boss fired me. When bullied at work, my responses have ranged from a determination to fight reality (a mistake most targets make I later discovered), to ignoring it, to eventually asking “how can I benefit from this experience?” That doesn’t mean being bullied at work hasn’t been downright terrifying; it has. But these days I spend far more energy focusing on: “what do I want instead?” This approach pays dividends in terms of stimulating creativity, which in turn has lead to many a fist-pump moment.
As a young woman, I fell madly in love with a cyclist who rode terrific bicycles. I loved his tree-trunk thighs – the epitome of sexiness. We met at a bike shop, just after I’d purchased the best bike I could afford. I was so proud of my bike – it took me places fast, gave me freedom and looked really cool.
However, listening to him I learned that a lightweight bike with top-of-the-range gears, handlebars and frame would take you further, faster and with less effort. I cast a critical eye over my bike that a few weeks’ earlier had been brilliant, but was now sadly lacking. If only I could get the right kind of frame, gears, handlebars, I would fly! The universe was listening because through a quirk of fate, I soon got the exact bike I asked for.
My newer bike fulfilled all its promises and more: I indeed went further, faster with less effort. The freedom was exhilarating. From then onwards, I made another important decision: I would take the path of least effort in all my pursuits.
What that looks like in practice is streamlining all my efforts towards a bigger goal. For example, I wanted to achieve an early career milestone after I left uni. I was bullied at work in my first job and I left earlier than I’d anticipated. Nevertheless, I did reach my goal, which was to obtain registration as a clinical psychologist. Leaving that job was a blessing anyway since it was getting difficult, draining and boring. My creativity ramped up a notch (needs must when the devil drives) and I received some remarkable opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Now when faced with adversity, I’m more likely to think “how can I use this to take me where I want to go?” rather than despair over the loss of something.
Hindsight tells me I’ve been streamlining towards my goals without even realising it at the time! When I chose to focus on workplace bullying as an expert area, I realised I had a wealth of experience to draw from. Suddenly, all those past experiences of workplace bullying became tremendously valuable. I have turned each bullying experience into a story that I broadcast to the world. I’ve been interviewed by Huffpost Live, invited to speak at conferences, submitted articles for online magazines (some of which have been translated in other languages) and shared stories on social media.
Never be the target of workplace bullying unless you stand to make significant personal gain from it. If it’s not advantageous then you need to walk away from it, pronto. This is the essence of Principle #3.
A few years’ ago, I implemented an iron-clad, no-arsehole clause in my life. I decided not to tolerate arseholes for a minute longer than necessary and henceforth I would ban them. However, arseholes have a habit of finding you wherever you are in life. Don’t ever think: “I attract them,” because they are everywhere and it’s only a matter of time before you walk into their orbit.
However, once you’ve encountered your arsehole at work, what do you do? Some people take a path I would never recommend. One of the most harrowing stories I’ve read is Teresa Zerilli-Edelglass’s: “Thrown Under the Bus: The Rise and Fall of an American Worker,” which is a classic guide about what not to do when you’re being bullied at work.
Those who seek restorative justice are often in for a lengthy and traumatising process. Although you occasionally hear success stories, this is the exception rather than the rule. Pay dirt comes with a massive emotional cost attached.
No matter how large the redundancy, worker’s compensation, sum awarded from a court case, this path is the least profitable. Large corporations, government organisations and insurance companies are so reluctant to pay out claims that they will do everything they can to avoid doing so. The individual faces an enormous onus of proof. If you do a poor job of documenting evidence and telling a convincing story, the odds of getting a settlement are very low.
Even those who “succeed” will face tremendous obstacles. Delays and obfuscations from HR departments, lawyers and insurance companies mean those seeking justice face weeks and months of uncertainty in which they have to rely on ever dwindling funds bordering on the verge of bankruptcy before seeing any traction in their case. The powers-that-be use their Goliath power to crush vulnerable individuals. Justice is only for Davids or those who can afford it.
However, it is possible to improve your chances of getting a decent payout. Success relies on having damn good evidence and a damn good story. If you have neither, then you need to learn these vital skills and have the resilience, tenacity and emotional reserves to go the distance. Very few people have the necessary fortitude to emerge from their ordeal unscathed.
This is not a path I have chosen personally because it doesn’t follow my principle of least effort. Unless the win is a no-brainer and I have an over 80% chance of success, I don’t believe the fight is worth it – but then again, I’ve never been a gambler.
That doesn’t mean adversity can’t be extremely profitable. According to Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in their book, “Wired To Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind,” going through adversity can make you more creative, resilient and engender enormous personal transformation. They describe how, in the past 20 years, psychologists have been studying post-traumatic growth in over 300 scientific studies. Up to 70% of trauma survivors report some positive psychological growth; this has been a reliable phenomenon since the field’s original researchers, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun first coined the term in the 1990s.
Growth after trauma can be in the manner of a greater appreciation for life, identifying new possibilities, better relationships, a richer spirituality, a sense of connection and greater personal strength, empathy and compassion.
The three principles for turning workplace bullying into a tidy profit are: 1. Never have any regrets about how you live your life. 2. Make significant economies of effort so as to experience less struggle. 3. Profit from adversity by using your creativity. These ideas represent a far better option than focusing on hanging on for dear life because you’re terrified of facing economic uncertainty if you leave.
If you want help in creating a Free Spirited life, find out how you can get your first clients in a successful online business in my “Fast Guide To Empath Entrepreneur Startup:“
As an Empath Entrepreneur, I’m especially interested in helping professional women who want to take their amazing skills into a new online business with the aim of building a location independent income. I’ve had over 10 years’ experience in creating a compelling online presence. In fact, if you Google: “Dr Sophie Henshaw,” you’ll get over 201,000 hits with all the posts, articles and media appearances I’ve made over the years. I’ve appeared on Channel 10, 6PR, Fremantle Herald and WA Today. I’ve had articles published in PsychCentral, Women’s Agenda, NineMSN Health, Rebelle Society and Huffington Post. I’m currently a Thought Catalog contributor. P.S. I also practice as a clinical psychologist in my "offline" life!
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