Bellicose, intimidating? Moi?

April 11, 2003

There are no excuses for bullying, but there are reasons why it occurs. Valerie Atkinson considers some approaches to the problem

Ask yourself what makes a bully. Unshackled power? Structural inequality? A supreme sense of entitlement? Perhaps tyranny arises from personality dysfunction, ranging from innate cruelty to disdainful self-obsession. Or possibly it emerges from any system burdened by great organisational strain.

Take any combination of these factors, and it is no surprise that bullying is an art form in universities. These are institutions riven by class and underpinned by institutionalised elitism, in which top management remains remote from its constituents. They thrive on aggressive opinion and intellectual competitiveness. And because they are propped up on loose hierarchical structures and blurred lines of accountability, the existence of the bully is inevitable.

From exquisitely bland assumptions of superiority to bludgeoning tools of confrontation, there are many examples of duress: senior staff repeatedly criticising and belittling vulnerable associates; promotion denied due to personalised opposition, or inequitable process and lack of transparency; threats of "discipline" as a means of intimidation; bellicose responses to opposition or appeal. Senior academics are free to exploit colleagues (especially those on short-term contracts) in cosseted research micro-worlds. Support staff inhabit yet another sub-universe, where hierarchies are more stridently delineated, deference and compliance demanded, and the boundary between management and oppression easily breached. Many suffer overload, having extra tasks foisted on them because job descriptions are woolly enough to invite unmanageable expectations.

Fear of reprisal outweighs dissent.

Let us not forget the peer group with its collective identity but its individual tyrants; the ones with the loudest voices, the thickest skins.

Those who will expose another's mistakes publicly, or sneer at their appearance, or isolate them from a dominant faction. The work-shy, too, burden others by their abdication of responsibility.

Bullying by proxy. Passing the buck. Sexist assumptions. Problematic tasks are delegated because the delegator is too busy or too self-important (or doesn't know how) to resolve them, and the recipient suffers accountability without recognition.

How many bosses instruct subordinates to convey unwelcome information on their behalf, partly to highlight their own superiority and partly to evade liability or confrontation? If it is demeaning or tiresome - catering, cleaning, furniture-removal, even parrying or pampering spouses - get a secretary to do it. Considerable confusion exists, sometimes wilfully, about the breadth of secretarial duties, often exposing individuals to improper demands. These can range from the banal to the offensively personal, and may be obviously incongruous. I wonder when Jack Straw was last asked to buy a birthday present for Cherie Blair.

This last form of pressure occurs because secretaries are usually female, though it is not necessarily confined to one category of staff. But, if you are that subordinate woman, the possibility of resistance might not occur to you until too late. There you were thinking you were dealing with an educated, sensitive colleague - someone who would respect you as an individual, someone you wanted to assist. And here you are, with that silly smile of acquiescence frozen on your face. Because your conditioned role is to be helpful and flexible; because you don't want to appear difficult or inefficient. You've been caught off guard, unfairly pressurised into undertaking something inappropriate, forgetting to "just say no". If, indeed, you ever learned how. Besides - when the moment of reckoning comes - do you dare?

If you don't dare protest - whatever category of staff or gender you are - formal recourse against bullying can prove equally problematic. Codes of practice abound. Wordy and worthy documents plot the route to redress. But most individuals balk at the idea of official proceedings. Their working atmosphere will be in ruins, their reputation in jeopardy (think of those future references), and they may have little faith in the outcome, in an organisation where grievance panels are populated by the very people who occupy positions of power precisely because of their finely honed skills of coercion.

Is there a remedy? Performance review might be a useful forum in which to discuss intimidation and related stress, provided the reviewer is in the clear. Go on - make my day. Make it worth while.

And then - there's always increased self-awareness. Consider again what constitutes a bully. Then ask yourself: have I bullied anyone today?

Valerie Atkinson is a department administrator at the University of York.

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