There was an interesting discussion on Radio 4’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ yesterday about workplace bullying.
I am now a few months out of my last workplace, and have spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of the working environment and the power given/taken to a certain kind of manager. It was a corrosive and damaging place to be and although I am a big boy and ought to be able to stand on my own two feet, at times it brought be to my knees. Social work is hard enough when you consider the nature of the tasks and the limitations of resources without adding in bullying as well.
When you are in the middle of it all, it is hard not to focus on particular individuals as the cause of all this. The dark shadow cast by certain people over everything is hard to escape- the thundering threatening e-mail, the meeting in which people are casually destroyed, the deliberate provocation and lack of co-operation. The relish that seemed to be exhibited at any kind of conflict.
There was a time when a new manager arrived who had a reputation to make. His career path was firmly upwards and woe betide anyone who got in the way. He had a new broom and wielded it like a scythe (to mix a deliberate metaphor.) Part of this meant categorising everything from the old regime as ‘bad’- and to be got rid of. Unfortunately, I was the only surviving middle manager from a previous ‘re organisation’ (which in the public sector is another word for a cull) so I was for it. There was no attempt to discuss with me some kind of plan of action, or lay out goals and action plans. No attempt was made to understand my strengths, or to make use of my considerable ‘organisational memories’.
What began was a campaign of alienation. I was called in for Performance Development Reviews and accused of all sorts of things that made no sense to me. I started collecting e-mails that seemed so unreasonable and even abusive that I thought I may need to use them as evidence later. It felt as if all the hard work I had put in to building an integrated mental health service had no value, and was being systematically sneered at, and then dismantled.
I stopped sleeping. I developed terrible cluster headaches. It became incredibly hard to maintain motivation, and all around me I saw people retreating into trenches and keeping their heads down. I contemplated just handing in my resignation and in a desperate moment, confided in a much older wiser manager who was doing some locum work with the council. He told me “Chris, don’t be so bloody stupid. What you need to do is to go and see (…..) and tell him that you have thought long and hard about the situation, and realise you have a lot to learn, and that you want to hear any advice he has to give about how to improve performance, and to provide the sort of management required. If you do this, you then have six months to get out intact, and protect your mortgage and your family.”
I more or less did this, and things settled down. Years later, I was told almost casually by the manager who had put me under such pressure that I had made considerable improvements- and that he had initially thought that I was not able to do this, so had tried to get rid of me.
Perhaps I had improved- but I do not think so. I think my development, if there was any, was more about managing my interface with the higher management. I did this by expecting no support, by trying to focus on the important stuff and to protect my staff from some of the huge pressure coming down. I think I also became more valuable, as a lot of the hand picked new management team did not adapt well, and many left soon after joining the council, sometimes leaving chaos in their wake.
Back to ‘Thinking Allowed’ however. They were interested in the sociological aspect of bullying, not the psychological one; so rather than focussing on individual processes, the focus was more on the sorts of environments that breed this kind of behaviour. What sort of organisations might make it more or less likely? What organisations are high risk? Sociologists Ralph Fevre and Amanda Robinson claimed that organisations which are well versed in modern management practices may create a culture in which bullying, harassment and stress thrive.
Unsurprisingly Fevre and Robinson found that organisations that were overly focussed on abstract performance and production targets to the exclusion of the particular human needs of staff will certainly be high risk of bullying behaviours developing.
They looked at different kinds of bullying- ranging from psychological through to actual physical violence, and found that even people who have been subjected to violence tended to focus on one thing as the most damaging- the fact that their workplace placed no value in the work they were doing, or their contribution to the organisation. This certainly resonated with me- the social work department I worked for seemed to operate in an environment where the soft detail of caring social work had no currency whatsoever. Rather everything was reduced to narrow performance stats, which placed pressure on people to constantly cover their backs.
When I think about my time under this kind of stress, I find myself feeling a little ill- but I have to acknowledge that this is not just about particular individuals- it is a systemic thing. It grows in the margins of an organisation being squeezed to death by inspections, scandals, enquiries, financial crises, staffing shortages. There will always be people who are able to exploit these situations for their own personal gain, but the real problem is the nature of the environment.
What then might change round such an environment? Some of it I think has to be about a change in management style- a rediscovery of a value base, and the value of individuals. The place I worked had all the right language, but somehow totally missed the mark on this stuff. For the sake of those who work there, I hope that things have changed. There is evidence that new managers are trying to achieve this, so good luck to them.
As for me, I feel like I am still in recovery. I am expecting to need to go back into the social work/health care world, at least as a part time worker, in the new year. This still makes me feel a little queasy, but I hope that this will continue to abate. Some scars will remain…