Opinion: Battling bullying in the workplace

Organisational psychotherapist Joan Kingsley says senior staff in the public sector need to appreciate how fear may be ruling their organisations, affecting their teams and holding back new ideas and creativity.

When fear defines the culture of the workplace, people spend the majority of their time working out self-preservation strategies.

Bullying in the workplace always takes its toll. Bullying produces fear in people that cascades down to infect the entire organisation. Workplace cultures suffused with fear negatively affect workers at all levels. Leaders and managers who fail to call bullies to account send an implicit message to all that it is okay to do whatever is necessary in pursuit of goals.

It is the job of leaders and managers to inspire and motivate. It is the goal of bullies to manipulate, command and control. For the bully, personal ambition trumps everything and everyone.

What bullies do

Bullies are toxic people. Their language and behaviour is abusive, aggressive, abrasive and unkind. They are autocratic, inflexible and secretive. Bullies are arrogant and view others with disdain. They believe their way is the only way.

Some forms of bullying are obvious, while others are subtle. Bullying includes intimidation, ostracising behaviour, verbal and physical aggression, psychological harassment, unfair treatment, hostility, social isolation and language or behaviour that is demeaning and malicious, gossip and spreading rumours, sabotage and using someone as a scapegoat.

When you are in the grip of a toxic relationship, you don't know who you are anymore. Your sense of self is damaged. You feel unhinged. You lose confidence and self-belief. You no longer trust yourself. 

People experiencing high levels of fear at work may be drained of energy, are susceptible to becoming physically ill and suffer from stress-related psychological problems - prolonged stress and anxiety weaken the immune system.                    

Fear & the brain

Joan KingsleyIn our book, The Fear-Free Organisation, Dr Paul Brown, Dr Sue Paterson and I present neuroscientific research that shows the damaging effect that fear has on the brain. Fear negatively affects the brain's ability to problem solve and to craft creative solutions. People working in a culture of fear will struggle to be productive.

Excessive and persistent levels of fear create functional and eventually structural changes in the brain. Functional differences interfere with the ability to work, to make decisions and to think with clarity and purpose. When the fear system in the brain is triggered, the brain sets off a flurry of signals and a flow of neurochemicals that cascade through the body, evoking fear responses.

What to do in the face of fear and bullying

In a hierarchical relationship, it is difficult to avoid the bully without putting your job at risk. If you are being subjected to bullying, it is important to seek outside help from a coach, a counsellor or your GP. Under no circumstances should you try and cope on your own. If you are witness to someone being bullied at work then open a conversation with the person and report the bully to HR or to a sympathetic leader or manager. Keep written notes of all bullying incidents.

The following are some suggestions for ways to deal with bullies:

  • Make it clear there is zero tolerance for aggression, and be clear about the consequences. 
  • Be assertive, not aggressive, when working with an aggressive, abusive person.
  • Confront bullies calmly, clearly and safely.
  • Stick to facts and don't get side-tracked by emotional outbursts.
  • Keep your own emotions in check, and walk away if it gets too much.
  • Forge allies to help you deal with toxic people. 
  • Create a petition for co-workers to sign.
  • Record every instance of bullying.
  • Raise a grievance or formal complaint.

Make HR aware it is not just you but the whole organisation that is being adversely affected by the bully. HR also needs support to deal with difficult people. That should be in the culture, not just in the rules.

One of the real problems in many organisations is that the bully is often seen as a high performer and so there is reluctance to deal with the situation because of the potential adverse effects on achieving targets. That is a major moral issue for any organisation - though the organisation puts itself at risk if it makes the short-term, target-driven judgement.


A culture of fear is the perfect breeding ground for bullying behaviour. Bullying and harassment cause anguish; they wreck lives and destroy the fabric of an organisation. Leadership can make a difference if there is a willingness to follow through on stated policies of zero tolerance of bullying.  


Joan Kingsley is an organisational psychotherapist and, together with Dr Paul Brown and Dr Sue Paterson, wrote The Fear-Free Organisation:Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture.