Why do men bully at work? Why do they engage in behaviours which are intended to intimidate their co-workers, and hopefully make other men cry?
We hear a lot about workplace bullying. The general view is that it shouldn’t happen. But it does. Almost half of employees will experience workplace bullying at some point in their working life. Workplace bullying is said to cost employers up to $36 million each year in terms of lost productivity.
The main response so far has been to insist that employers need to have strict policies and procedures in place to respond. There has also recently been a focus on helping employees become more “resilient” to bullying. This includes offering training in how to respond, including communicating with the bully.
But there is something missing in our thinking about men who bully other men in the workplace. This bullying is actually a “normal” part of masculinity. The act of bullying offers men the hope of continuing to identify as strong and dominant. All they need to achieve this is the construction of an opposite – a weaker person.
In an article published in November 2016 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers Aleksander Ellis and Daphna Moto conclude there is a distinct sex difference in respect to how a person gets treated when they cry in the workplace. Men who cry in response to negative feedback are labelled as “atypical” by their colleagues and employers. They have reduced chances of promotion, and are considered to be poor choices for leadership roles.
Men who cry at work lose credibility. They become not man enough. Weeping men are removed from the competition to determine who is the best worker or manager. They exist only to affirm the continuing real manliness of the man who hasn’t (yet) cried.
This need to find an “Other” to produce a “Self” is something that has been widely researched in identity work. At an individual level, it is used to interpret how we define ourselves. I am Australian, because you are Japanese. I a man, because you are woman. I cannot identify as an Australian male unless I have a Japanese female against which to understand myself. It’s also a basic idea in representation which allows us to know the difference between an apple and an orange, or a chair and a table. Knowing what that other thing is not allows me to know what this thing here is.
For boys, the construction of normal masculinity is about what they do—the kinds of activities they engage in, the music they listen to, the books they don’t read. It also involves having to construct an Other who is less boy, more “girly”. This explains in part why boys intimidate and bully other boys. They use words and physical aggression with the intent of producing a weaker boy against which they can confirm their own strength. An “other” weak boy is needed for the strong “self” to exist.
This is important for thinking about why men bully other men in the workplace. It is not that they are necessarily bad men. It is not simply that they have some individual insecurities which are driving their bullying behaviours. They are also participating in “normal” everyday practices of constructing masculinity. They know that their successful masculinity can be built through de-masculinising others.
This is why men override decisions made by others at work. This is why they publicly criticise their colleagues and subordinates. This why they seek out and highlight errors in their colleagues’ work, instead of understanding work as lifelong learning and working collaboratively to achieve a goal. This is why they engage in activities which aim to show how they and their work are the best, even if this means preventing others from achieving what they can.
Responding to cases of bullying is important in a workplace. Bullying can have devastating and long-term impacts on those who are subjected to it. It must be challenged and stopped. But this requires more than implementing and applying a policy.
Attention needs to be given to how masculinity is constructed within a workplace. What kinds of men are seen to be “good” or “real” men in your workplace? What behaviours do these men exhibit to attain their “real” manhood? What kinds of behaviours are seen to signify weakness, and why? And what can be done to create a gender culture at work in which to be considered a “good man” does not involve having to try and make other men cry?