Being bullied? Just grow up!

13th August 2004 at 01:00
FE's new playground mentality means that too many managers are being falsely accused of bullying, says Dennis Hayes

"Bullying" is a concept that has been imported from the playground into the workplace. Attentive readers of FE Focus will have noted the rise in references to "bullying"with over 30 mentions last year compared with a handful in previous years. Any dispute in FE, or elsewhere, it seems, finds unions characterising an employer as using bullying tactics.

At a personal level the response of anyone to a difficult or embarrassing situation in a college is to make an accusation of "bullying". The charge is so widespread that it must be said that it has no clear meaning. What about the following real-life instances.

Making people redundant, is that bullying? Asking people to do extra or harder work, is that bullying? Undergoing a bad experience in an appraisal? Not getting a pay rise or promotion? Listening to mangers telling you firmly what to do?

So many other common experiences in FE can bring an accusation of bullying: having to re-apply for a post; suddenly being moved with all your books and papers to another office; being spoken to with a raised voice, or shouted at; even finding out that your colleagues don't respect or even like you, The tendency in all the cases is to answer with a categorical "YES!" or a cautious "It could be!". But the grown-up answer is "No it's not. It's just being at work."

The charge of bullying now seems a natural response. However, such talk is part of the infantilisation of adult life. Grown-ups should not use childish talk: it puts us in the position of children and we then have to ask our "parents", the managers, to protect us by adopting "anti-bullying" or "dignity at work" policies.

What it is difficult to remember is just how new the use of such playground language in employment disputes and in the workplace actually is. In the mid-Nineties I did a major survey of attitudes to work, interviewing a 1,000 workers throughout Britain. It never occurred to me or any of my research team to ask whether people felt bullied at work. Such an omission would be inconceivable now.

The turning point was the near destruction of union organisation after the resistance to new contracts after incorporation.

By 1995 we find the lecturers union Natfhe issuing its first advice to branches on dealing with "bullying". With the collapse of collective challenges to workplace problems, individual responses have become the norm. Lecturers feel demoralised and vulnerable and appeal to management not to kick them when they are down.

This has not helped the lecturers concerned - merely resulted in the burgeoning of counselling and anti-bullying training, telephone support lines, and websites that abound with stories of bullying. No doubt there are some serious incidents and the compensation sometimes paid to settle bullying claims may be substantial, but for the most part that is what they are, "stories". Such tales betray an infantile view of the college as a huge playground.

However, this doesn't mean that we have to accept the line pushed by employers: that what lecturers and unions call "bullying" is "strong management". There is little that could be "strong" in the routine and often necessarily petty work of looking after an under-funded service.

Strong managers don't just put pressure on people and make cuts in jobs and courses, they have the vision and authority to create a dynamic expanding service.

Most managers are powerless in the chaotic, leaderless world of FE.

Playground language benefits them too by making them seem tough and competent.

In fact, in the neglected and demoralised FE service the playground concept of bullying suits everyone, unions, managers and lecturers, and of course, students, all of whom play the bullying game and get involved in amateur psychology rather than tackle the sector's serious problems.

The bully everyone remembers is the hapless Cruncher Kerr from the Beano, sworn enemy of Roger the Dodger. He should be in our minds when we are tempted to think of work in playground terms and become childish.

Sometimes you may not sleep and may not feel like going in to work, just as you may not have wanted to go to school. Sometimes, perhaps, you may not feel recognised or valued for the work or feel too intimidated to speak up in staff meetings. Don't indulge these feelings.

Proponents of playground concepts suggest that people should not be afraid to speak up and express feelings of vulnerability. This turns us all into children. Don't expose your vulnerabilities at work. Grow up, get a grip, and life in the Cinderella service might really start to improve.

Dr Dennis Hayes is the editor of the Routledge Falmer Guide to Key Debates in Education

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