Recognising bullying is the first step to overcoming it, says Eileen Parkes.
No-one could fail to be moved by the video shared this week of a schoolboy crying over bullying. As adults we hope that we’ve moved away from school bullies. But in academia it seems that bullying is a persistent problem, with up to 42% of academics reporting some form of workplace bullying. In adult life, bullies rarely steal our lunch money or gum our hair. But they do steal our self-confidence, make us feel inadequate and question our work. My own experience with bullying has taught me how to recognise it, and what to do to overcome it in the workplace.
How to recognise bullying
Many people experience a self-critical inner voice – some think this is helpful in striving for success; the feeling that there is always more to be achieved. But this can go too far. Imposter syndrome is a problem for many, particularly those who do not see themselves represented in the higher levels of academia (such as women and minority ethnic groups). Our critical inner voice tells many of us that we don’t fit in and don’t deserve to be where we are. This critical voice also works against us in recognising bullying.
For me, near the start of my career, I was just getting to grips with my role. I couldn’t understand why, for one particular person, anything I produced wasn’t up to scratch. My decisions were questioned to the point where I gave up defending them. I was asked to produce complicated work at short notice, meaning I worked progressively longer hours. More worrying were the rumours that this person had called my abilities into question among other colleagues. My conclusion was that I needed to work harder, that I wasn’t good enough.
I didn’t know at the time that constant criticism, unreasonable expectations and malicious rumours were all hallmarks of bullying. After raising the issue with co-workers, I was told “that’s just how they are” or “that’s the nature of the beast”, “that’s the life you’ve set yourself up for.”
How to overcome bullying
I moved quickly away from that role, and found my niche. My self-esteem was rebuilt and I enjoyed my work. But more recently, I started experiencing the same emotions again, feeling inadequate and overworked. This time I recognised the constant criticism I was receiving was unwarranted. I kept a note of the times I felt undermined and when I heard of my work being questioned. I spoke to a mentor, who was able to clearly see and define for me what was happening.
I arranged a meeting where I set out what I felt was reasonable to expect of me and how I would demonstrate this. Surprisingly, this meeting was straightforward. While still not perfect, we were able to establish a good working relationship. So what made the difference this time?
The first step was recognising bullying – often in academia we are asked to be critical; it’s a competitive job and we all want to be seen in the best light. Some people choose to do this by making others look worse – recognising this for what it is will help us deal with it appropriately.
Having an independent mentor was helpful, as was speaking to senior colleagues I trusted. In the case of a bullying supervisor or PI, others in the lab may adopt the behaviours they see modelled. Your peers may feel that tolerating this behaviour is expected in academia. A mentor from outside your group can help you see a broader picture. When we experience negative emotions, we can get mired in details. An independent mentor can help us see the larger issues at play.
What we can all do to combat bullying is to speak out when we see it happening – bullies often rely on the support of others and will back off when they realise they don’t have that support. Sites such as labmosphere.com promote a positive lab culture, encouraging supportive networks.
If you are being bullied, remember you are not alone. Speak to someone you trust, online or offline. We can all work together to cultivate a culture of kindness.
Eileen Parkes is a clinical post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, exploring the immune response to DNA damage. Outside the lab she loves spending time with family and using social media to talk science. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.