Volcanoes, Tough Conversations, and Workplace Bullying

In January of 2012, a group of us hiked up Volcan San Miguel, or “Chaparrastique,” as it’s known. The volcano is out in the Department of San Miguel in eastern El Salvador. While not a long hike (about 4.5 miles to the crater), it goes up 7,000 feet in altitude. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful example of partnership as our Salvadoran friends led the way.

On December 29, 2013, Chaparrastique erupted, sending a plume of ash and toxic gasses up into the air. My friends were evacuated and kept from their homes for about a week. While they’re able to return home now, they’re unsure of the safety of their corn and beans, which were piled up in mid-harvest and are now covered in volcanic ash.

While this type of event is responded to locally, it also at times calls for a global response. And as partners with the community, it requires us to engage in difficult conversations. Cultural context, financial practices, constructs of the “accompaniment model,” and our desire to do with, not do for create tension and confusion at times, especially when you factor in a language barrier. That’s when I find myself in an awkward or tough conversation with Pastor Julio.

I found myself asking, “Why is this conversation sometimes so difficult?”, and it reminded me of another conversation I had just before Christmas. I was out doing a site visit at an organization where they’re piloting some formal and informal training as part of a major workplace violence prevention initiative.

Difficult Conversations About Bullying
A clinical unit coordinator for the ED and I were chatting about the issue of workplace bullying and she said, “Sometimes it’s easy for me to say something, and sometimes it’s really difficult. It depends on the person, I guess.”

Because of the context, because of cultural differences (hospital to hospital and person to person), and in some respects because of “language barriers” that might exist when staff don’t share a common definition of bullying, taking the bold step to say something about workplace bullying can in fact be very challenging.

While preventing workplace bullying starts with an individual assessment of behaviors, it’s reinforced by policy, procedures, and the culture created and maintained by managers and supervisors or other organizational leaders.

But we all have our context, right? As a Type A personality, hardcore “D” on the DiSC® profile, my context and communication style are very different from others and can be seen as abrupt or direct or even intimidating at times. When I’m asking for details on a relief effort because I have to be accountable to the people who will find the financial resources, I might seem too direct or untrusting.

At the end of the day, understanding what something is and is not can help us understand each other’s contexts. In this way, understanding what workplace bullying is and is not can help us understand each other’s contexts, and it can help supervisors and managers assist their staff in dealing with behaviors.

What Bullying Is
  1. Bullying involves incivility that is persistent and ongoing.
    If left unchecked, it can simply become the “way we do business.” This doesn’t mean that a single act can’t be defined as bullying, but behavior being ongoing is often one of the markers of bullying.
  2. Bullying often exists with a power differential.
    One person is able to control or strongly influence the behavior of another. People who bully have perceived, assumed, or real authority or power with relation to the target. Position within an organization is only one type of power differential though. Not all bosses are bullies, and not all bullies are bosses.
  3. Bullying exists where there is an absence of consent.
    Consent can refer to either the way a person behaves, or to the way the person thinks or feels. There are times when someone may verbally consent or, through behaviors, consent because they’re afraid or they feel threatened, but even with consenting, they feel exploited, intimidated, or bullied because they didn’t actually want to consent.
  4. Bullying exists where there is intent to harm or manipulate.
    The person doing the bullying has a motivation to manipulate or control. For example, the difference between a “tough boss” and a “bully” is that the bully does not want the victim to succeed.

What Bullying Is Not
Bullying is not a solitary or occasional incident involving an angry outburst or an inappropriate statement. It is not a difference in personality style or personal taste. It is not when people in authority provide guidance or direction.

Making Addressing Bullying Easier
The hard part is speaking up or addressing bullying when you see it or experience it. Even if you’re unsure whether a situation is “bullying” or not, if it fits any of the criteria above, you should probably speak up. If you have the courage to say something to the person doing the bullying, great! If not, follow your organization’s protocols and policies for reporting workplace violence.

Using the criteria above, you can put the behaviors in question into context and your organization can work from a common accepted definition, or “language.” Cultural context and a common language will help make it a little easier to have the tough conversation.

Does your organization have a policy on preventing and managing workplace bullying? If not, we can help. We offer a variety of solutions that can be tailored to your organization’s needs, including:
  • Free webinarWorkplace Bullying: Define, Recognize, and Respond offers a discussion of strategies to help you respond to and prevent workplace bullying.
  • SeminarWorkplace Bullying: Matters at Work is a three- to four-hour seminar offered by CPI to your organization.
  • Coursethe Workplace Bullying Topic Module is a two-hour course that can be delivered either by CPI or by anyone in your organization who’s a Nonviolent Crisis Intervention®, Dementia Capable Care, or Prepare Training® Certified Instructor. Learn more on our Topic Modules page.

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About the Author

“I truly value how much CPI’s philosophy revolves around treating every person with dignity and respect at all times—even during their most difficult, vulnerable moments. This philosophy helps workplaces expand their culture of care and operate with compassion as a guiding framework. The more that compassion can drive us, the more we can create positive change.”

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