Demystifying and managing workplace bullying

When I was a nurse I experienced bullying from a senior colleague which impacted greatly on my self-esteem and confidence both professionally and personally.  She would criticise how I performed certain tasks and procedures, and how I managed my team and colleagues.  Fortunately for me this situation did not last long as the senior nurse left nursing.  But it did take a while for my confidence to be rebuilt. I was told that the person bullying me was probably jealous of my nursing skills and knowledge.  However this did not in any way make me feel better about the situation!

Oade says that each bully has their own motivation for bullying including jealousy, envy, fear and control.  Bullying is about their need to destroy the good that the target or person being bullied has earned.  The bully tries this by undermining the reputation of the target which causes others to doubt them. Communicating and relating to others is always dynamic and involves issues of power and dominance and bullying is no exception.  Bullying may include one-off incidents or be repeated.  It is a deliberate attempt by the bully to undermine the target’s ability to do their work, to injure their reputation, or to undermine their self-confidence.  It may also be a deliberate attempt to remove the personal power of the target and to keep this power for themselves.

The bully uses “intimidating and aggressive behaviour in the hope of limiting the choices that the person they are targeting has when they attack” says Aryanne Oade a clinical psychologist specialising in workplace bullying.  So those that are being targeted feel overwhelmed and are often taken by surprise and they often comply in an attempt just to get it over with- partly because they don’t know what else to do or because they are shocked and it seems the best thing to do.  Once the person who is being bullied (the target) has done what the bully wanted, the bully is in a position of power over the other.


Please do not misunderstand me, the person being targeted/bullied is never the one at fault-the blame lies 100% with the bully ev
en when the person being targeted uses submissive and passive behaviour.


Bullies look for vulnerability and make unjustifiable criticisms which aim to undermine somebody’s self-esteem… It is essentially a dishonest tactic.  The person on the receiving end takes these criticisms seriously which leads to greater vulnerability.  Very often when people are bullied for a long time they believe that the bullying will get worse if they fight back.  However there are ways to challenge the bully successfully claims Oade.  For instance if a bully says that the report you wrote was rubbish the person who is vulnerable to bullying might say “oh sorry can you tell me what’s wrong with it?”  This leaves the door open for the bully to hurl more abuse, they hear the fear and under confidence in your voice.  However, to shift the power dynamic in favour of the person being bullied this same scenario may look like this: “okay I just heard you say that you think my work is poor.  So what I’d like you to do is write down your criticisms and then you, me and my manager can discuss them”.  Most bullies will not take up this challenge because the point of the criticism was not that the report was inadequate but it was to undermine the self-esteem of the person being bullied.

Oade says that the power dynamic is changed completely when the person being targeted makes it clear that they are not affected by the bully statements and instead, holds the bully responsible for what they have said.  The bully then gets the message that the tactic of undermining does not work.


Counselling can be a safe environment for discussing issues around bullying, to build self-esteem and to role-play scenarios to build resilience.