Academic Bullying vs “Robust Management”: where to draw the line?

Let me preface this article by saying that bullying in academia is a serious problem. The victims of bullying suffer emotionally, psychologically, and physically as a result. Many are left unable to work or even function in daily life. Bullying in universities is particularly insidious. Unlike “playground” bullying, that often involves physical assault, university bullying is typically subtle in that the target is viciously attacked in a way that is not at all evident to others. Such bullies often employ carefully crafted language with double meaning, so that they can always later on claim, “that’s not what I meant.” They also employ common “gaslighting” strategies, like building up a false hope in the target, only to quickly and savagely pull it away, thereby compounding the pain inflicted.

But the focus of this article isn’t really on bullying, but rather what I call “robust management.” I wrote a paper on this topic that was published last year. The paper showed that managers and employees can hold significantly different views over what actually constitutes bullying. For example, managers may view a certain behavior as simply “legitimate performance management,” whereas employees may view the exact same behavior as straight up bullying. The findings suggests that there is a serious definitional, or even deeper philosophical, problem in terms of identifying what constitutes bullying.

Obviously, real bullying is unacceptable and has no place in academia. Ergo, real bullies need to be reported and held accountable for their actions. But the problem remains: what is “real” bullying? Who is a “real” bully? Given that managers and employees may not always agree on the parameters surrounding this term, how can we determine which behaviors are bullying and which are not?

“Obviously, real bullying is unacceptable and has no place in academia. Ergo, real bullies need to be reported and held accountable for their actions. But the problem remains: what is ‘real’ bullying? Who is a ‘real’ bully?”

If we assume that bullying is bullying because one felt bullied, then we would be using a purely subjective definition. After all, one can unreasonably feel bullied. When a manager provides negative feedback about your performance, as long as that feedback is delivered professionally, it is not bullying. It may feel like bullying, but it’s not. When a co-worker points out a mistake you’ve made in your job, you may feel like this is bullying. Again, as long as the language used is professional, it’s not.

Too often, employees who feel bullied complain that they are being bullied. This is akin to the story of the boy who cried wolf so many times that the townsfolk stopped believing him when a real wolf appeared. In my view, false accusations of bullying against managers have the effect of cheapening legitimate accusations of the sort described in the first paragraph above. When “everything” that management does becomes “bullying,” then the real acts of bullying can get lost in an ocean of mostly baseless complaints.

In short, I think we need to look long and hard at the reasonableness of our feelings. We need to develop resilience so that we can embrace negative feedback, whether coming from managers or co-workers, and learn from it, rather than automatically and impulsively making an accusation of bullying. When I say this, I’m not just being a management apologist. I’m also trying to protect of victims of serious bullying, as opposed to just robust management.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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