Meet Liam. Liam is someone who’s known for his diligence and creativity. Everyone knows Liam as “the guy who’s passionate about his work”. Recently, Liam was invited to a team meeting where he excitedly presented his brand-new project idea that he’s been consumed by for weeks. While he shares his vision, one of his colleagues interrupts him with a sarcastic comment, saying, “Well, Liam, that idea is so brilliant that it could singlehandedly bankrupt the entire company!” 

Caught off-guard, Liam felt a mix of embarrassment and frustration. As he tried to maintain his composure, he continued with the rest of his presentation, until another colleague quickly chimed in saying, “Oh, Liam, you never cease to amaze us with your ‘unique’ ideas”. The room chuckles softly in laughter. To Liam, hearing these subtle laughs makes him feel humiliated. 

These subtle yet hurtful remarks continue to fester in Liam’s work environment. Over time, Liam’s enthusiasm dwindles, as he begins to doubt his abilities. Not only has he become hesitant to speak up in meetings, fearing rejection, but he now feels demoralised and undervalued as an employee, and as a person. 

Liam’s experience is a common one. It shows how these seemingly harmless remarks and dismissive attitudes can chip away at someone’s wellbeing. Researchers often call these small, yet mildly rude behaviours as “workplace incivility”. Sometimes, it can be difficult to draw the line between whether a behaviour at work amounts to “bullying” or whether it’s simply just rude and disrespectful. 

That’s why it can be helpful to distinguish between the two.

  • Workplace bullying: Refers to repeated and persistent mistreatment, abuse, or harassment. It’s characterised by intentional and targeted behaviours aimed at causing harm or distress within individuals and can look like verbal abuse, threats, sabotage, or even burdening someone with unfair workloads just to make their lives difficult. 
  • Workplace incivility: Refers to low-intensity rude behaviours that can be hard to tell whether they’re intentional or not.

We recently joined the Pink Shirt Day movement in New Zealand and hosted an anti-bullying webinar which was well-received by many. The conversation around bullying and disrespectful behaviours continues to grow, especially in our workplaces. In fact, a recent new survey conducted in New Zealand revealed that as many as 90% of Kiwi workers might have experienced being bullied in the past 12 months (including 10% who experienced weekly bullying and one-quarter who were bullied monthly). The researchers were pretty stunned at this high rate of reporting (from their sample of 1100 workers). 

This goes to show the importance of fostering supportive and respectful work environments, which often starts at the leadership and organisational level. According to studies from organisational psychology, these types of negative workplace behaviours are linked to many harmful consequences for individuals and organisations, including:

  • decreased psychological wellbeing
  • poor physical health
  • reduced morale
  • increased staff turnover
  • greater incidences of conflict.

Now that we know what can happen if these negative behaviours continue to occur, you might be wondering as a leader, “What’s driving these bullying behaviours?” or “I’m doing the best I can as a manager, but I don’t know why this is happening…”. This is completely normal, and it can be challenging to pinpoint exactly why incidences of workplace bullying might pop up in the first place.

It’s likely due to a combination of many different factors. But what we know from research is that work stressors such as high workload, poor organisational climate, unsupportive leadership and role conflict are the most important risk factors for predicting workplace incivility and bullying behaviours. These are also known as psychosocial risk factors and play an important role in affecting people’s psychological and physical health. It’s essential for leaders and managers to take proactive steps in identifying and addressing these behaviours, so that we can create a better foundation for tackling bullying more effectively.

So how can leaders and organisations manage and prevent workplace incivility or bullying?

  1. Create a mentally healthy work environment through fostering psychological safety. One of the key factors in addressing this issue is cultivating an organisational culture that values respect and civility. If organisations can work to prioritise psychological safety, leaders can create a safe atmosphere where people feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their concerns. Offering workshops and training sessions on how to create space and build psychological safety within teams can equip employees with the tools to address incivility among themselves and build stronger relationships. Visit our training page to find the best workshop for your team, or book your psychological safety workshop here.
  1. Regularly assess key psychosocial risk factors in your workplace. This can be done through a confidential annual or quarterly survey that is sent out to the team to provide their responses on how their workload has been, whether they’ve experienced unkind words and behaviours recently at work, whether effective supports are in place for them, and what management can improve on to better support the wellbeing of employees. To get real-time insights from your people, you might be interested in our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment tool, which helps you discover the factors that are influencing the psychological health and performance of your people. If you’re a smaller organisation, even having regular check-ins and gathering information through interviews may be a great way to identify areas requiring attention, which will help inform your strategy and interventions. 
  1. Model positive behaviour from the top down. Leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping workplace culture. Leaders are encouraged to set an example by demonstrating respectful communication, actively addressing incivility if these incidences are seen and providing guidance on appropriate workplace conduct. Along with this, openly acknowledging and discussing incivility is key to managing it effectively. Encouraging open conversations about the impact of uncivil behaviour can raise awareness and allow individuals to express their concerns without fear of disapproval or retaliation. Maybe Liam’s colleagues are simply envious of his bright ideas, and feel jealous of his talents. Do they need encouragement to follow their passions in a project, too, rather than tearing Liam’s enthusiasm down? Challenging conversations like these that address specific incidents or patterns of incivility can be uncomfortable but are critical for setting boundaries and developing a respectful work environment. When leaders prioritise respect in their culture, this sends a powerful message to the rest of the organisation. 

For more on leadership, check out our other articles:

 As organisational data from New Zealand employees shows that bullying in the workplace is a very common issue, this too might be a problem in your organisation. If not, it’s still important, as part of an employer’s legal obligations, that we create workplaces where incivility and bullying is not tolerated.

If you or someone you know is facing workplace bullying, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Seeking support is crucial in navigating this challenging situation. Employment New Zealand offers valuable resources that can provide additional information and guidance:

Additionally, if you are in need of extra support, consider reaching out to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider. EAP services can offer confidential counselling, advice, and resources to help you navigate workplace challenges and enhance your overall wellbeing.