My discussion of diversity in this 4-part series encompasses not just the high-profile aspects of gender, race, sexuality etc., but also the different styles we see in other aspects of life and work, such as problem solving, communication or expressing love. As the difficulties we experience are common to all aspects of human diversity, so is the framework for a constructive way forward.
The first article in this series shared some personal experience of the pleasure and pain of human diversity in conservation teams. A second article provided insight and practical tips on engaging with the diversity and conflict we experience within ourselves. The third article, appreciating diversity in others, offered a framework for how we experience diversity in those about us with whom we work, live and play. This final article provides practical tips for bullying and harassment experiences that occur when our diversity is not respected.
Sometimes disrespect for our human diversity is overt, blatant and in-your-face aggressive. More commonly, it is covert, subtle and ambiguous. In these instances, people often have great uncertainty about whether the offender is deliberately targeting them and intending to cause trouble or if the unease and distress is something wrong within themselves. Whether bullying and harassment is intentional or not, it is the perception of the receiving person that is of foremost concern in law and organisations.
A clear distinction between bullying and harassment can be useful in legal and professional contexts for the purposes of justice, corrective or disciplinary action. In practise, the words are often used interchangeably. Both bullying and harassment can be one-off or ongoing behaviours, intentional or not, covert or overt, active or passive, individual or group offenders and victims. Bullying and harassment may even be reciprocated between two parties. A distinction that does tend to hold is that bullying involves a person with power (positional, cultural, or physical) abusing that power with those under their care. Harassment may involve those smaller in stature (weaker in power) picking or niggling at someone higher up a power structure. An analogy from nature is that of the small birds that harass a large raptor to move it on. The purpose of looking at distinctions in bullying and harassment is to bring some clarity to the nature of the experience and why there is something inappropriate about it.
10 Tips for handling bullying and harassment experiences.
1. Identify your safe places and people
Safe places and people provide the means to separate ourselves from the source of trouble and for our brain to return to a peaceful state. When our self-protective limbic system (freeze, fight, flight) response has been triggered and fires up, our executive, higher order thinking processes diminish. It typically takes 5-10 minutes after the stress event has ceased for our executive processing capability to return to normal function and for the survival response to calm down. Safe places separate us from the danger, safe people provide psychological (and physical) safety by listening, not judging and pointing us to appropriate resources including trained professionals.
2. Accept challenging emotions as healthy
Emotions like anger, fear, sadness can be very uncomfortable, many westerners in particular have a sense that it is wrong and unprofessional to experience these emotions (e.g., as a child I was told ‘big boys don’t cry’, even as an adult I frequently heard ‘just toughen up’). I believed that to experience such emotions was a sign of immaturity. These emotions are actually part of our healthy human function. It is one thing to give intellectual assent to this, it is another level of learning to be comfortable with (accepting of) the presence of those emotions when they turn up. They can indicate that something is wrong, that action is needed. They can be very powerful motivators for corrective action. The problem is not in the emotions themselves but the actions and impacts of the words spoken, or actions taken when those emotions are intense. Remember the insights of Psychologist Victor Frankl in a Nazi concentration camp, that there is always a space between the stimulus (e.g., abuse, our anger) and response (our words or action) and in that space is choice (to do or not do, to speak or be silent).
3. Check definitions of harassment and bullying
Checking the definitions of bullying and harassment within your organisation policies can help you identify whether your experience is inappropriate for the workplace. Such policies typically identify the relevant state or national laws that provide for people to be treated with respect in the workplace and the respective responsibility of employers and employees to support diversity, equity and inclusion. Laws and policies typically also give information on the process for victims to seek formal intervention and links to resources for support.
4. Clarify your experience - distinguish facts, thoughts, feelings and impacts
It is helpful (and important) to distinguish the facts from the associated thoughts, feelings and impacts. Firstly, only try to do this in a safe space (see point 1). This process helps distil and bring some order to the mass of fleeting thoughts and confusion that can swirl around our minds in difficult situations. As thoughts are transcribed to words on paper, the power they seem to have in our mind tends to diminish. We can more readily select those that we want to explore further or can let go of.
Following is an example of what this might look like for Jane and her manager, Mary. Jane has a sense that Mary does not respect her because she has blonde hair.
Facts - what was seen or heard (without interpretation)
Mary said in the meeting ‘that’s a really blonde idea!’ She straight away asked ‘John – what good idea do you have?” The previous meeting Mary said that an idea I shared was ‘silly’. At the beginning of team meetings Mary often tells a blonde joke to get started.
Thoughts – what thoughts, judgements, conclusions come to mind
I think her tone was derogatory. I am being judged and not taken seriously because I have blonde hair (even though Mary has natural blonde hair and dyes it brown). Mary believes I am stupid and don’t have good ideas, but John does. Mary doesn’t like me and doesn’t really want me around. I am not being respected. I should not say anything at all in meetings, so I don’t get treated this way. Maybe I should leave this job. Is this bullying and harassment or am I overreacting?
Feelings - the emotions and sensations that are present (e.g., mad, bad, sad, glad)
I feel anxious, frustrated, sometimes angry. I feel sad (when I think I am not good enough for her). I feel confused (when I think Mary is supposed to help me grow in this job but only seems to put me down). I feel like crying, I nearly cried in the meeting.
Impacts - what the consequences have been for me
After the meeting I was all stirred up and I had all these thoughts going around my head. It was hard to focus on my work. I felt like crying. I felt angry that I was being treated like that in front of the team. When I went home my partner got a serve about how disrespectful she is and how I probably should just leave before it gets worse, or I can’t get a good reference. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it all.
5. Know what you want
It is helpful to know what you want as how we would like things to be in the future shapes the next steps and action we might take. It is helpful to focus more on what we want and how we can bring that into being rather than go over and over the problems of the past. Try asking these questions:
- What result or outcome do I want?
- What type of relationship do I want with this person?
- What do I want in terms of my self-respect?
- If I had to prioritise them, what would the order be?
- What can I do to progress these desired outcomes?
Continuing the example of Jane and Mary:
Wants - what I want
I want Mary to apologise and stop making comments about being blonde. I want to be listened to and taken seriously, to be respected. I want a good professional relationship with Mary. It’s important that I can speak up for myself when I am not treated with respect. My highest priority is my self-respect (to speak up about this, not pretend it doesn’t hurt me). My second priority would be to have a professional relationship with Mary and then to have her apologise. The next thing for me to do is set up and plan a meeting with Mary to tell her how this impacts me and how I think we could have a more professional relationship. I will also to the human resources section to help me plan the meeting.
6. Keep a note of events based on 4 and 5
If the unwanted behaviour is more than a one-off event, it is very helpful to keep a record. This will be critical for any formal complaint process. The above framework in steps four and five can become columns on a page with a date in the margin for each difficult event. Simply fill in the table each time you have a sense of something happening, even if it was only small or you are uncertain if it really means anything. Regardless of whether you think there will be any need for a formal process, most people find the activity of writing things down on paper gives clarity and a degree of resolution to what can otherwise be a mass of undefined, nagging thoughts and questions.
7. Consider formal and informal responses
Formal processes extend the hope and expectation of justice for offences against diversity, equity and inclusion. When successful, they clearly affirm the sense of wrong experienced by the victim, may provide some form of compensation and hold the offender accountable for the harm done. They can, however, be very difficult and confronting to all parties. The complainant needs to substantiate and provide some form of evidence (hence the value of notes) and the defendant will have the opportunity to respond to the complaint. They can be a slow process even if one or other party does not take some form of stress related leave. When the complainant believes the formal process fails to deliver justice or change the behaviour of the offender, a strong sense of being a victim not only of the offender but the justice system can persist for some time. There is great wisdom in these situations in seeking trained help to resolve residual feelings of injustice and powerlessness.
Informal processes typically involve working individually or with support people (e.g. union representative, counsellor, human resources personnel, mediator) that can help you achieve the outcomes you want. They commonly involve talking with the person who is causing the trouble to explain your experience and work together towards outcomes that work for both parties. The framework in points 4 & 5 above is really helpful for talking through the experience and desired outcomes.
8. Set a personal growth objective
A personal growth objective answers this question – ‘what do I want to say about myself at the end of this process (regardless of the outcome)?’ We cannot control the outcome of a complaint process or the behaviour and attitudes of another person. We can control and choose how we show up and respond. Despite the discomfort and pain, there is a huge opportunity in difficult experiences related to harassment or other conflict situations. Consider a future job interview where you are asked how you deal with or have handled conflict. Thinking about the skills, strategies, or personal qualities you would like to say you exhibited, ask how can you use or develop those in this current situation?
In the example with Jane and Mary, some growth objectives might include: engaging rather than avoiding or denying there is conflict; being authentic and speaking respectfully to, or about Mary, with colleagues; having a go at using a framework for difficult conversations; adopting a growth mindset.
9. Be responsible for your choices and responses
When we recognise that we have a choice (rather than no choice) we gain personal power. When we use the language of ‘no choice’ we feel powerless, and powerlessness (along with injustice) is at the very heart of the victim experience. Too often we give away our personal power simply in our common use of language e.g., ‘they made me …’, ‘I have to…’, ‘I must…’, ‘I can’t…’. By acknowledging ‘choice’ in our language we highlight that we have considered another or multiple options and exercise our power to choose one option over another, even if the consequences are difficult or undesirable.
Being responsible also builds our self-respect. We learn that even if the consequences of our choices and actions are different to expected we can reflect, learn and make a new choice that acknowledges mistakes and then keeps us moving towards the outcomes we want for ourselves and those about us.
Further, in being responsible for the consequences of our own choices and actions, we break the blame games that leave us a victim of circumstances, luck or other people.
Continuing the example of Jane and Mary, responsible choices and actions might include: talking to the human resources section or a workplace mental health and safety officer about my experience and options; booking a meeting with Mary to discuss this experience and how to move forward; choosing not to complain about Mary to other team members. Taking some time to reflect on ways I might be contributing to the trouble I have with Mary.
10. Set measures of success based on what you can control
Be sure to set measure of success for outcomes and personal growth that focus on the things within our control (e.g., personal learning and practise of skills) rather than things outside our control (e.g. changed behaviour of the other person). Small successes fuel more and bigger successes.
With approximately 25 years of experience working and more recently coaching in environmental management and conservation, human diversity has been at the core of some of my best and worst experiences. I shared and explored some of those experiences and the associated insights in the first article in this series the pleasure and pain of human diversity in conservation teams. The second article in this series, engaging with the diversity and conflict we experience within ourselves highlighted that before we try to improve our experience with diversity in other people it is really helpful to clarify our relationship with our own internal diversity. The third article, appreciating diversity in others, offered a framework for how we experience diversity in those about us. This included an assertion that to change the way we experience diversity in others and they in us, it is critical to identify the judgments we make of the diversity we perceive in ourselves. In this final article for the series, when diversity is not respected, I have set out 10 practical tips to deal with bullying and harassment experiences.
Self awareness, a growth mindset and curiosity have been three key elements to my own journey of learning with respect to diversity in people and our environment. I look forward to hearing how this series has assisted you in your personal growth and professional development as a conservation practitioner via the comments or connect with me on LinkedIn or www.rossrowecoaching.com.