Conflict is not bullying – but having said that – conflict left to fester can become bullying.

Understand what each of them are may help in determining what actions to take in the workplace.  Most of us know that while conflict can sometimes provide opportunities for new thoughts and different ideas; it’s not always comfortable. How it’s managed really is quite dependent on the workplace itself.

The conflict that we need to worry about is the conflict that does not produce positive results but rather, friction and positional thinking.

If we begin to notice increased conflict at work (and trust me on this – we notice) it’s best to bring the parties together to discuss it.  We don’t always have to have the same opinions to work alongside one another but we have to respect the opinions of others.  It is learning how to manage those difficult conversations and knowing when it’s time to that can be tricky.

According to the Meriam Webster dictionary, conflict is defined as:

  • a:  competitive or opposing action of incompatibles :  antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)
  •  b:  mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands

If we decide to keep our heads in the sand and allow the conflict to continue, you can see how it could allow a much greater chance of evolving into a bullying situation.  I sometimes think we are too quick to say uncivil behaviours and conflict are bullying or harassment.

Harassment is typically a series of repeated incidents.  A series of incidents often leads to negative, hostile or poisoned environments that interfere with someone’s ability to do their job or obtain a service.

Tim Field, who was an expert in the area of bullying, defines it as:

“Persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behaviour, abuse of power, or unfair punishment which upsets, threatens and/or humiliates the recipient(s), undermining their self-confidence, reputation and ability to perform.

Context is everything. The persistence, the pattern and the effect of incidents which are, in isolation, trivial, creates the context in which those incidents can be regarded as bullying – but the trivial things would be cumulative in nature.  Most of the literature I have read on this indicate approximately 6 months of documented behaviours before we can actually identify it as harassment.  Recognize that the severity and context are a large part of determining time lines and each situation must be looked at separately.

Dr. Constance Dierickx identifies bullying as:

“The repeated unethical and unfavorable treatment of one person by another in the workplace. This includes behavior designed to belittle others via humiliation, sarcasm, rudeness, overworking an employee, threats, and violence.”

There is no doubt we have some unpleasant personalities to work with and those behaviours have to change if we are going to have healthy workplaces.  I think there is confusion as to what bullying really is and what it isn’t and possibly we jump too quickly to labelling bad behaviours as bullying.

I believe we have to encourage healthy workplaces and we have to deal with conflict or otherwise difficult conversations – no one wants to work in constant conflict.  We also have to give our supervisors and managers the right people-skills to manage their employees fairly and effectively.

We also have to encourage ‘by-standers’ who witness bad behaviours to step up and say something.  The traditional African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” could well be applied to our workplaces.  We can change up those words to say “It takes all of us to create a healthy workplace.”