That’s a great question and one that came up over and over at the International Association for Workplace Bullying & Harassment conference. Unfortunately we don’t have an answer, but I will weigh in on it here and let you make your own decision.
While there is no research to say either way (and I say that after conferring with the two foremost researchers in the academic “bullying field”), it seems pretty clear that for human resources professionals, intent does matter. Teresa A. Daniel, who seems to be the resident expert on workplace bullying for the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), discusses this in her article and in her book, Stop Bullying at Work (SHRM Press, 2009). She claims the difference between a bully and a tough boss is in fact intent. According to Dr. Daniel, although their behaviors may be similar, bullies misuse power and focus on personal interests while tough bosses are objective and have self-control.
The Healthy Workplace Bill, a Bill that aims to make equal-opportunity bullying illegal, and has been introduced in 17 states but not yet passed in any of them, defines abusive conduct (i.e., bullying) as “conduct, with malice… that a reasonable person would find to be hostile, (and) offensive.” The word “malice” indicates intent. This means that one would have to prove the bully meant to do it in order to obtain legal recourse.
On the flip side, I (and many of my colleagues) have had conversations with bullies who claimed they had no idea that their behavior was so harmful. One in particular said that he knew he was hurting people’s feelings – that much he could tell. But he simply did not have the communication tools to change, and he begged me to help him improve. Is that malicious behavior? I’m thinking no.
Unfortunately, however, one is left to question the reliability of these bullies. How do we really know they are not lying in the face of a consultant, who they know was hired by management? Are they really going to say, “Ha! I did mean to do it and it felt great when I made Sue cry!” Probably not.
This leaves us back at square one. Do bullies really mean it?
Although I am unable to provide a real answer to this question, I will say this. Whether bullies mean to do it or not, their behavior is harmful to targets, witnesses, and the organization. While I believe some bullies do mean it and some do not, I ultimately don’t believe the issue of intent really matters at all. If an organization has rules and a culture in place to enforce a positive and collaborative work environment, bullies will have no choice but to change their behavior. End of story. If they don’t, they will be pushed out of the organization due to inability to meet performance goals. And this is the case whether they intend to bully or not.
We can help you develop a positive workplace where bullying would not be allowed to thrive. Contact us for a complimentary consultation at catherine (at) civilitypartners (dot) com.