Many years ago now I experienced relatively severe bullying from a colleague. This person was deeply offended by something I had said which he had not understood and when he asked another colleague of the meaning of ‘social etiquette’ was given the response ‘To eat soup through a straw when you’re dining with the Queen.’ He interpreted my statement incorrectly as this definition was not what I’d meant. Deeply offended he refused to speak to me or engage in any kind of communication with me, make eye contact and basically co-operate in any way. He was passive aggressive like I have never experienced before. This proved to be extremely stressful for me as we were the only 2 people in a 2 person team and as a result the effectiveness of my role within the school was severely compromised, not to mention extremely uncomfortable as it was the expectation that as a team we would work together.
I tried many times to try and find out what I had done to upset my colleague (it took me about 3 months to even find this out) and when I tried to explain myself was completely ignored. I felt terrible – helpless, hurt, confused and as a result was finding my professional life very difficult.
At the same time in my life I was studying counselling and I was participating in a subject called ‘Counselling Process in Action’ (and wasn’t it just that?!) We had to take a real life issue with us to our tutorials and share them with our peers, the benefits being twofold in that we could learn about how to become more effective counsellors while at the same time have the chance for some free therapy.
As you can probably guess I took this work conflict to these sessions. We explored how I felt and why but didn’t really get much further than that until a session that my supervisor sat in to do some assessment. When I explained what was happening she bluntly said to me ‘Well what are you going to do about this?’ I explained to her what I had already done and she simply stated ‘You’re not getting anywhere because you’re responding to his treatment with a victim mentality.’
I was interested in this label ‘Victim Mentality.’ What did my tutor mean? Hadn’t I done enough already?
You see, by not acting further in response to the actions of my colleague I was effectively letting it be, condoning his behaviour. I needed to take further action to resolve this issue but knew neither what to do or how to go about implementing such action.
If you were me in this situation what actions do you think I should have taken? What were my responsibilities? We’ll be discussing this (and more) on #teacherwellbeingchat this evening at 8:30 Adelaide time. I hope you can join us, I’d love you to share your ideas with the group (and I’ll Storify the chat and add it here to finish this post too).
Well what an interesting chat that ended up being. As I expected there were participants who had experienced conflict with other staff (in the sessions I do with teachers ‘conflict with staff’ always ranks really highly) and who felt uncomfortable as a result of me sharing my own experience. It wasn’t my intention to do this but it was more an exercise in using my story as a way to help people with past experiences or when working through issues (either with their own conflicts or when supporting students) in the future.
Let’s just spend a second looking at conflict. Conflict is normal. It happens. It can even be healthy and have positive outcomes. Different people have different experiences and ideas and there will be times when views will clash. This has to do with the perspective, temperament and personality of those involved. But in my experience in supporting people who are in conflict, 90 – 95% of the time it is because of a miscommunication, and often this comes from people assuming things about what others have not said. Problems fester and become larger and larger when they aren’t addressed in their initial stages.
It’s ironic that often what’s needed to clarify a situation is the one thing that people often shy away from – discussion. Most people (myself included) avoid conflict and would much rather sit in silence than stir the water. In fact as mentioned in the chat, some of us are conditioned to behave this way from a very young age (particularly if we are women or from certain cultural backgrounds). This can be to our detriment as it means issues are not discussed in their formative stages, the time when resolution is easier.
But back to my case study above. My tutor (who I had a good relationship with then and whom I still see now as a supervisee) had a good point. By not doing anything about the situation I was effectively condoning it. I had tried to speak with the person but he wouldn’t even look at me, let alone engage in discussion. And by complaining about his behaviour but not actively doing anything to bring about the change I wanted to see my supervisor was right, I was very much in victim mode as I was not being active in seeking a resolution.
With the help of my supervisor I began to engage in a conflict resolution process. I approached my principal (who was well aware of the situation as she had observed it many times) and gave her in writing information about how the other person’s behaviour was affecting me. I referenced the ‘Respect and Courtesy’ section’Code of Conduct for South Australian Public Sector Employees’ that stated:
‘Members… are entitled to receive personal respect and courtesy and to maintain their dignity in their interactions with (each other). Employees can reasonably expect to work in an environment that promotes their ability to work with one another and shows regard to the sensitivities of people within the workplace”
To make a long story short a mediation process began. It was long and drawn out. But the fact that the issue was being addressed and taken seriously was empowering and resulted in me suddenly feeling much more in control of the situation. From discussions with my principal and my colleague’s line manager agreements were created and signed. Despite this his behaviour continued so after a number of months the dispute was escalated to a regional level. Mediation continued for a short while until my colleague fell so ill he was no longer able to work and he ceased employment altogether.
Although it’s unreasonable to expect everybody to get on perfectly all the time, it is essential that within our workplaces we are treated with respect. Passive aggressive behaviour although silent can be an extremely powerful form of bullying and intimidation. It is a breach of workplace legislation and as we all know is an occupational health and safety issue.
If this kind of situation has happened to you I suggest you become active in seeking assistance to have the issue resolved. Find a support person (either on staff or externally) to help you through the issue. Initiate a mediation process so that you are able to reach some resolution with your conflict. If your managers aren’t supportive you could approach your regional office or union. The outcome may be no better than an ‘agree to disagree’ scenario but if it means that people are treating each other with courtesy and respect then its more likely to become a win-win for all parties involved. As mentioned in the chat, sometimes eating a bit of humble pie is also required but remember this – nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes and although it may be difficult to take responsibility for an action in the short term, in the long term being able to do that will earn you respect.
Whilst experiencing this conflict I began to see a lot of this victim mentality in the students I worked with and in some caes their families. I extended my learning to them – if you are not happy with the way you are being treated by others, self pity and a victim mentality are not helpful. Implementing the following strategies might be more useful (in no particular order):
– moving away from the person (if possible)
– ignoring the person (if possible)
– telling the person explicitly what you are observing and experiencing as a result of their behaviour and how you are feeling as a result
– getting support (from a peer or teacher)
I would ask students and families what they were doing to address these issues and would explain to them their responsibility to take action to make change. The results were empowered students and a reduction in issues. The best part of being involved in my own conflict situation was the learning that went with it and from that came knowledge and strategies to support others (hopefully including you dear reader). So at least some good came out of it after all.
Here’s the Storify of Sunday’s #teacherwellbeingsession session if you’re interested: http://sfy.co/nC1V