We must deny bullies a pulpit

April 23, 1999

Why is bullying so prevalent in higher education and how can we deal with it? Cary Cooper reports.

Workplace bullying is a widespread problem. When the Trades Union Congress set up a telephone hot-line for employees to report on the worst aspects of their organisation, bullying came top of the list. Forty per cent of all complaints were about bullying.

Numerous other recent surveys have highlighted the problem, including occurrences in universities and colleges. A survey of 800 members of the lecturers' union Natfhe in Wales reported that 18 per cent of lecturers had been bullied and 22 per cent had witnessed bullying. In a Natfhe-sponsored study of more than 300 members in England, it was found that 22 per cent had recently experienced bullying.

What is bullying, why is it so prevalent and how can we deal with it? Basically, bullying is persistent harassment, physical or psychological, that demeans, devalues and humiliates the victim. Bullies who shout and publicly humiliate their subordinates or colleagues are easy to identify, but there are more underhand forms of bullying too. Subtle bullies set their staff up to fail by withholding or manipulating information, calling meetings when staff are not available, isolating workers from colleagues, criticising them for minor mistakes and undermining their self-confidence by ignoring their successes.

There has always been a small number of individuals who reveal their insecurities when they reach positions of influence - individuals, for example, who may have low self-esteem and try to enhance their self-worth by demeaning others; or those who feel so threatened by a high-flying colleague that they bully them to try to defuse the threat they pose. These "sociopathic" bullies are probably in the workplace in the same numbers they always have been.

But the big increase in bullies today is among the "overloaded" bullies - those unable to cope with their workload, with difficult staff, with their or others' career problems or with autocratic superiors. These people use bullying as a management style.

This goes on in universities because the private-sector culture is fast becoming the norm in higher education. Academics now have to deal with high workloads, long and unsocial working hours, job insecurity, performance-related demands and a more "bottom-line" management style.

In some regards the problems are worse in higher education because few managers in the university system are trained. Most are appointed on the basis of their research competence rather than for their managerial skills.When these managers find themselves with a work overload, staff conflict or financial crisis, their lack of managerial skills leads some of them to "manage by bullying".

Nor do universities have the mechanisms to deal with bullies. There are no procedures for staff to disclose bullying experiences safely; no counselling for the bullied or disciplinary or training strategies to deal with the bully. Some private firms have anti-bullying policies and procedures to allow employees to reveal problems. They employ trained staff to gather evidence and, subsequently, discipline or train bullies.

Universities, too, must train senior staff in people management and develop ways of tackling the growing problem of subtle bullying. We must try to create working environments in universities that avoid approximating Studs Terkel's description in his book Working of the prototypic workplace: "Work is by its very nature about violence - to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us."

Cary L. Cooper is BUPA professor of organisational psychology and health, and pro vice-chancellor of UMIST.

* Is bullying on the rise in higher education - and how should it be tackled? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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