Navigating bullying in the workplace (part 2)

Navigating bullying in the workplace (part 2)

In Pecan’s work helping organisations evolve their culture we sometimes encounter situations that meet the definition of bullying:

‘Unwanted aggressive behaviour that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated or has the potential to be repeated over time.’

As part of our education in this topic, recent neuroscience research is providing more information on the long-term damage of bullying on the human brain.

Until recently this has not been well understood or reported, but the research shows the extent of the harm bullying can do on those being bullied, those who bully and those who witness bullying.

Neuroscience is showing that bullying harms the brain. This includes chronic stress that releases neurotransmitters that disrupt brain function and impact cognitive abilities. This can lead to damage to brain structures that negatively affect attention and memory, decision making and performance that indirectly lead to mental health, resulting in poor brain and physical health.

This can occur as a result of physical and sexual bullying and abuse, as well as verbal abuse and emotional neglect.

Applied Organisational Neuroscience specialist Soraya Shaw MSc  explains more about what is happening inside the human body and brain when bullying occurs.

Bullying leads to a threat response where the body is flooded with stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline.  This in turn inhibits thinking, memory and makes learning pretty much impossible.  From here it can be a short step to poor mental and physical health, plus a significant loose of engagement and deterioration of social relationships which are of huge importance to our wellbeing and positive mental health. From an organisational perspective this results in employee apathy and resignation”.

So, what we can we do?  Is there any good news here? 

As Soraya explains:

“Key to changing or avoiding any forms of bullying or in /out team behaviours is the environment and culture. People have a strong need to belong and to be respected, if not their brain capacity and energy is wasted on protecting themselves from perceived danger that bullying evokes.

There are many neuroscientific studies that show the positive impact of the brain feeling secure and focused not least more engagement but also healthier people, with less sick days and better productivity.  We know that once the brain feels under threat the flight or fight networks are activated to preserve brain energy in the event they need those reserves to mobilise the body for action.

So, to avoid this leaders and their senior teams must agree what behaviours equate to their company values and therefore how employees need to behave. As leaders they need to set this tone as people quite naturally will look to those senior to them for the acceptable ways to conduct relationships.

What should be remembered is that what creates anxiety in one person may not have the same impact on someone else. We are all different due to our life experience, DNA, etc. and therefore our brains layout and activation systems are structured individually. But the good news is that due to the brains plasticity it is constantly shaping and making new connections daily.

So, by putting in place best practices and talking to employees about what they need and how they can also be responsible for creating a shared and comfortable environment will help reduce anxiety and worry in others, plus hearing what others have to say and what they feel builds strong social bonds and trust.

This occurs as new more positive neuronal connections are made meaning that those old networks being to recede “Use them or lose them”. Empathising or having the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes is a skill that can be developed. It is the bedrock for co-operating relationships. But too much empathy can leave people trapped in the worries they perceive around themselves.

The key is to move them forward into action be that talking to someone in a position of authority or communicating in a positive way with the perpetrator as many times people are not aware of how they are impacting others, or they themselves are also in a stressful mindset.

I believe compassion is a healthier overall response for the brain as it also supports it to release neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin to name just a few that activates the parasympathetic nervous system that protects against poor mental and physical health and reduces the impact of cortisol the stress chemical, helping people to regain their autonomy, purpose and meaning”.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to identify and actively address and work to prevent bullying. Remember… if you are not stepping in, you are supporting it.

We would urge you to consider the following questions:

  • How is your organisation doing on this?
  • Does your organisation have a framework for creating a non-bullying environment and way of addressing it?
  • Do your organisational values help shape behaviour and build trust?
  • Is there any bullying taking place?  How do you know?  Are your leaders confident to address issues?

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised here, or if you believe that your organisation could do more to address workplace bullying, please get in touch with Andy by emailing [email protected], or connect with him on LinkedIn

Soraya’s Podcast

Soraya along with co-presenter Tracy Filler have just launched Brainy Podcasts ‘Talking Creativity and Innovation’. They explore the wider context of creativity and innovation that includes what’s going on in our brains; What it is? Who has it? Why that matters and how to nurture it? How it will impact our futures? What it means for future businesses? They are joined in each episode by a guest with an equally inquisitive mind, from different walks of life and who add their perspective, the importance in their lives and how this will influence AI and the tech of the future.  Available through Spotify or here.

About Andy:

Andy is a culture change expert with over 30 years of experience. Andy specialises in helping organisations achieve a positive workplace culture, using a range of tools and services.

You can find out more here

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