Leader: Is that a fist or just a firm hand?

The conventions and traditions of academia make it especially difficult to pinpoint what constitutes bullying behaviour

May 21, 2009

Bullying is a serious issue, in academia or anywhere else. When we launched our Bullied Blogger column online at the start of the year, it was with the aim of offering insight into the problem and providing practical advice on how to cope, without making any judgment. The blogger's story is a true one: all the experiences are real, but names and some episodes have been fictionalised to protect identities. The events are not taking place in real time; readers are not voyeuristically following the distress of a person unravelling.

There has been a great deal of empathy and identification with the Bullied Blogger's predicament. But there have also been aggressive and unsympathetic comments about how such a person would fare in the "real world" of targets and profit margins.

And therein lies the rub. We have no commonly accepted definition of what constitutes workplace bullying. What one person sees as firm management, another views as bullying behaviour. In universities, with their tradition of collegiality and ethos of academic freedom, the problem is even trickier.

Good management and collegial working should not be incompatible. On the whole, university staff do not resent or resist effective management: they understand that it is needed for an organisation to function properly. This relationship is not without tension, however, and both sides occasionally get things wrong.

The best institutions will spot problems early and intervene swiftly to prevent a culture developing where staff feel harshly treated and believe that the only way to resist changes they perceive as unfair is to make accusations of bullying. But it is important to remember, too, that making such accusations every time a manager does something one does not agree with helps no one - and particularly not those who are being genuinely bullied.

Management of budgets and people must be kept as separate as possible from the planning of academic provision and the running of day-to-day business so that neither academic freedom nor collegiality is infringed.

But an environment in which people judge each other by their academic prowess can be a tough one to negotiate for less academically qualified and inexperienced managers wanting to make an impact and raise performance. One academic accuses the union of portraying managers as "19th-century mill owners driving the staff to death" when in fact "most couldn't manage a whelk stall. They bully because they don't know what else to do." Or, as the quote on the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line site puts it: "Those who can, do, those who can't, bully."

To tackle bullying, we must pin down what it entails. Academe is an intellectually aggressive place where ideas are and should be contested. For champions of academic freedom, what is important is the "unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive". But for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, behaviour that is offensive or intimidating is bullying. Negotiating a path between the two is an unenviable task.

"With the greatest respect" is a well-worn preface and a fig leaf for disagreement, but scholars know that without it, scholarship itself and not merely the scholarly workplace is diminished.


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