The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneNovember 2006: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Sensitivity and Work :
HSPs and "Bullying" in the Work Place--Changes are Coming

There has been a change in the business world's perception of bullying in the work place, which I think has a great deal to do with HSPs. Hence, even never-bullied-at-work readers should find this a satisfying report.

The change is that bullying and "mobbing"--bullying by a group--are at last becoming the subject of research and interventions in the United States (it has been a serious issue in Europe for years). And it is about time: In a survey of companies done by the U.S. government, 24 percent reported some degree of bullying in the previous year.

Defining Bullying

If you are sensitive, bullying can be as simple as incivility, which is defined as "low intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm and which violates the norms of respect" (Andersson and Pearson, Academy of Management Review, vol. 24, 452-472). However, some who study bullying feel there must always be intent to harm.

For example, if a gruff person is bluntly, loudly critical by nature, not realizing this is distressing you, it's not quite bullying, at least by one definition. You would be able to stop it by addressing it. Since this can be very difficult, you might say nothing and go on feeling bullied, but technically that is not what is happening. (We hope you would eventually be able to say something like, "I guess I need to explain that when you speak the way you just did, it distracts and distresses me, even though I know you don't meant to, but I just can't give you my best work when you're talking to me like that.")

But even if the incivility is unintended but continues, or an HSP does not even feel bullied, but blames himself or herself for being "too sensitive" or a "wimp," harm is still being done. A study of 5,000 people in the United Kingdom by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation found that even if the victims don't recognize that they are being bullied, their mental health is still affected. More on the health costs later.

The expert on the subject, Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Washington, skips the issue of intent and goes to the effect on others. He defines bullying as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee by one or more persons, manifested in one or more ways: verbal abuse or threatening and intimidating conduct (verbal or nonverbal) that interferes with work and undermines legitimate business interests."

Just as important as overt bullying behavior, however, is the subtle non-behavior: not informing targets of important meetings, not sharing essential information for a task, or not including the target in an important e-mail. And there's micromanaging, as if the problem is the target's poor performance and not the bully's hostility. And there's undermining a person's reputation behind his or her back, and general "office politics" that have become intentionally unethical and dishonest.

One researcher, Helge Hoel, says an important defining feature of bullying is that the targets feel unable to defend against or control what is being done to them. Indeed, in some companies verbal abuse is condoned as simply a tough management style. To protest would be futile. In this climate, if someone is micromanaged, it is assumed the employee is not meeting expectations. And ostracism may seem like just a "personality conflict" or something the person should be able to handle on his or her own. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. One study found that in such a work environment, confronting a bully, as is so often advised, only led confronters to be harassed or ostracized by other co-workers as well. And those who complained to management about a bully end up fired, demoted, or given a poor performance review.

HSPs and Bullying

How is this relevant to a newsletter for highly sensitive people? The fact is, HSPs are likely targets. You can probably imagine the reasons:

  • We can seem weak because we prefer to be soft spoken and kind.
  • Our first defense is to try to please, which makes us seem to be accepting domination.
  • Or we opt for peacemaking and compromise rather than go on the offensive, another sign of weakness to a bully--the predator is only excited by all of this.
  • We have stronger emotional responses, so bullies can see when they are getting through to an HSP. This is even more reason for chop licking.
  • HSPs are usually conscientious workers, and especially dedicated when they find their work meaningful. So we are often quite popular with those above us in rank as well as anyone counting on us. We also often have the best ideas and the most knowledge about the task and how it needs to be done within the context of the larger goals of the organization. And especially compared to bullies, we usually have greater integrity and higher moral standards. Since bullies lack all of these charms and are doing as little as possible, or else scheming their way to the top, an HSP is often making them look very, very bad.

Help If You Are a Bullied HSP

This is not an article on how to handle being bullied, since that advice would probably apply to very few readers at any given time, but there is quite a bit of help available. Barrie Jaeger in Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person (you can purchase it from this site) has good advice. For example, standing up for your self, of course, but also going on the offensive--and she teaches how to do it.

I can also recommend Joseph Badaracco's Leading Quietly (Harvard Press, 2002--Amazon has it). The subtitle is "an unorthodox guide to doing the right thing," and offers subtle strategies for besting those who are not doing right thing when direct confrontation is apt to have repercussions for your self.)

And perhaps the best on bullying is The Bully at Work, by Gary and Ruth Namie (Sourcebooks, 2000). Gary directs the institute mentioned above.

The High Cost of Bullying—Losing HSPs

What I find fascinating about this topic and want to emphasize is that a major reason that companies are becoming concerned about bullying is that they are noticing they often lose the most qualified professionals, the most dedicated workers, not people with personality problems. I suspect many of these valued employees are HSPs, and someone is getting it that losing them is bad business.

Other Costs--Employee Sickness and, Yes, Lawsuits

Another reason for the new interest is the cost to employee health. Again, this is probably most noticeable in bullied HSPs, because the health problems are all stress related, of course--familiar to all HSPs. For example a study of 5,432 Finnish hospital employees found that prolonged bullying resulted in increased cardiovascular disease, as well as weight gain. Other studies, by the World Health Organization, found the same plus that bullying leads to high blood pressure, heart palpitations, migraines, fatigue, muscle pain, and ulcers. The same study found psychological symptoms too, of course: lowered self-confidence, confusion and embarrassment, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, irritability, apathy, hyper arousal, insecurity, and intrusive thoughts, plus increased drinking, family conflict and social withdrawal. Another study found that bully-related stress is more detrimental to health than overwork, long hours, or even being unemployed. And a study done in England found that victims of bullying for more than two years had more symptoms of posttraumatic stress than a comparison group of U.N. personnel recently returned from a war zone. Nasty stuff.

But equally interesting is the fear of law suits. Bullying is beginning to be viewed as being similar to sexual harassment, and why not? It's out of place at work. People should not be allowed to do anything to others beyond what a "reasonable person" would find acceptable--which is how sexual harassment was finally defined. The old attitude is passing, that targets of bullies create their own problems by not standing up for themselves, just as the old attitude has passed that women are the cause of sexual harassment simply by their choosing to enter the traditionally male arena of work. It seems ridiculous when you think about, doesn't it?

Soon We May Be Protected by Law

Quebec, Norway, Sweden, and France have antipsychological harassment laws already, although there are none in the U.S., yet. The Healthy Workplace Bill is being introduced in nine states. It would allow the severely bullied victim to sue the bully or the company. But the company would only be liable if it failed to stop the bullying, so there would be an incentive for companies to change.

Such laws will be needed at first so that all organizations will be forced to follow the same rules, should some fear that the effort to stop bullying will cost them money. In time, however, it will be clear that bullying--like sexual harassment and second hand smoke—are bad for the bottom line as well as for people, and should never have been allowed in the first place.

Bullying Grows Up

One reason for this new view of bullying is that the same change has occurred in school settings. How long did we hear that children should be left to work it out for themselves out on the play ground, meaning that the target of bullying will have to learn to fight back? That attitude did enormous harm, especially to sensitive children. But now the view is that it is up to the school, from the principal to the classroom teacher, to change the social climate by developing respect for differences in personality as well as gender, race, and ethnicity. Everyone deserves respect. And there are model programs that schools can adopt--ways teachers can develop and role model prosocial behavior. Since bullies often end up being the ones rejected, ultimately (and a few then get a gun to get even), these programs are as good for bullies as for their targets. Everyone tends to feel better in an anti-bullying, respect-everyone environment.

I suspect these changes in schools are coming about in part due to the recognition that sensitive children exist and are not only normal, except for their sensitivity, but often highly gifted or at least bright, conscientious children with good futures. Their parents are probably speaking up too. No child should be emotionally damaged by bullying, but it helps to realize that some sensitive children simply cannot be expected to stand up to those with the other extreme of temperament, or to those damaged by prior neglect or abuse.

Similarly, businesses are realizing they are responsible for bullying and are losing their most gifted employees--probably many of them HSPs--if they let it continue. Not to mention allowing an environment of distrust, poor communication, and general low morale. Hence numerous programs are being developed to systematically foster attitudes of respect and collaboration. Most notably, IBM has reworked their company goals to include, first, creating a culture of trust, in which intimidation is not tolerated (and they have fired people for bullying), and second, formalizing core values and employment guidelines that make all of that clear.

Given the legal, health, and economic reasons for stopping bullying, it seems that change is coming. HSPs were probably the most affected by sexual harassment and smoking in public places, too--things which now no "reasonable person" is expected to tolerate. And we were the first to notice and complain. Perhaps next we can point out the need for general civility, quiet, natural light, and fresh air. Then why don't we go for less war and more diplomacy and foresight? No reasonable person wants other people killed, either.


November 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Coping Corner: What to Do about Extravert Envy
Sensitivity and Work: HSPs and "Bullying" in the Work Place--Changes are Coming
Parenting Sensitive Children: Enjoying the Holidays with Your Highly Sensitive Child (Inner Child Included)

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