A 2020 British workplace study showed that 23% of workers shared that they have been bullied at work. Broader studies have shown that as many as 64% of surveyed respondents claimed to have experienced this, either through being physically hurt, driven to tears, or had their work performance affected.
Given that most of us spend a significant percentage of our lives in the workplace, being bullied within this context is bound to take its toll. And so what can be done about it?
Walking away from this form of bullying is easier said than done when so many life factors are affected by our livelihoods.
Let’s explore this together.
What does bullying at work look like?
Signs that you are being bullied at work can include:
- Dreading going to work out of fear of humiliation, criticism, and excessive and disproportionate workloads.
- Feeling intimidated, afraid or undermined by a particular person.
- Missing out on opportunities given to others.
- Feeling like no effort is big enough, that no work is good enough.
- Feeling as though the ‘goal posts’ are frequently moving – any target you reach is automatically made harder, so that you never achieve anything.
- Feeling isolated from groups of workers, gossiped about, or left out of social events.
- Not having a voice in meetings, being spoken over, feeling silenced.
- Being blamed for things that were not your fault, or having your work scrutinised more than others.
- And much more…
Sometimes, bullying in the workplace happens as a consequence of ‘splitting’, which we will now explore in more depth.
What is splitting in the workplace?
Splitting is the tendency of some people to view others as all-good or all-bad. The term was first coined by Ronald Fairbairn when he formulated Object Relations Theory. It is thought to begin in infancy, when a child is struggling to combine a mix of loving fulfilment and unresponsiveness within an individual caregiver. As an adult, a person who splits promotes a highly emotional and defensive state where only good or evil exist – without the nuances and grey areas that make up so much of life. This toxic attitude can quickly be contagious in the workplace.
I usually call this “A/B thinking, or a use of language that contains lots of “always” or “never”, as well as “all” or “nothing”. These are simple “tells” to look for in someone’s choice of words.
Splitting in the workplace encourages extreme, all-or-nothing positions and frequently involves projection, for example, labelling other people as being “angry” in the ways that those doing the labelling are actually being angry themselves.
In the workplace, splitting can create a bullying culture against one individual, driving them out of the workplace or into a position of submission through encouraging others to think of him/her as ‘all bad’.
It can also cause the victim of splitting to struggle achieving rewards or positive praise, because their work is viewed as ‘always bad’, even when this is objectively not the case. By setting a worker up to persistently fail, for example by creating impossible deadlines or overloading them with work, the ‘splitter’ then feels justified in their criticisms and subsequent punishing actions (e.g. denying that worker a pay rise).
Dealing with splitting at work
Noticing splitting can be incredibly difficult. Proving it can feel impossible. But having strong personal boundaries and assertiveness, you can tackle splitting head on, or, if you prefer, transition away from the toxic work environment altogether. It’s your choice.
Therapy is a good first step. We can talk about how you are experiencing work, who might be splitting, how this splitting is affecting you, and devise strategies to live with this or move away from it. Plus, if you sign up to my subscription for therapy, I can be there with you – at the end of a phone – to give you real-time help when splitting behaviours emerge.
How else can splitting show up?
It could be that you are reading this and have realised that you are the person splitting – or that you are splitting in response to someone else’s splitting. Signs that you might be splitting in the workplace include:
- Refusing to believe your work could need improvement – thinking that the critique of your work is a vendetta against you.
- Having strong emotional responses to feedback or constructive criticism.
- Creating or feeding workplace dramas that will polarise people (e.g. starting a rumour).
- Deliberately trying to get someone sacked.
- Convincing yourself that everything is wrong, and that you need to correct it.
- Jumping to conclusions, not allowing others to explain or justify decisions.
- And much more…
If you are self employed, you can still split! You might fail to acknowledge the smaller details and nuances of your business, or deliberately overlook things you’d rather not deal with – focusing only on the ‘all good’. Entrepreneurs who split might have 20 failed businesses behind them or huge debts from where the splitting hides the negatives and focuses only on the positives.
As you can see, splitting takes many forms in the workplace context. If you are a victim of splitting or you yourself are splitting, I can help.
Getting the support you need
We can also go for a walk.
Whichever help and support you need, my pledge to you is consistent.
Book a free 15 minute conversation, which is all you need to begin your journey. We will talk about where you are now, where you want to be, and how I can help you get there.