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  • Writer's pictureBen Slater

Spotting Bullying through the Lens of Psychological Safety

Some 29% of workers will experience workplace bullying at some point, and one in 10 has experienced it in the past six months.(1 )

But we still don't have a legal definition of bullying yet in the UK.

ACAS defines it as:

unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either:

  • offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting

  • an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone (2)

This seems clear-cut doesn't it?

But our response to bullying can be heavily influenced by the level of psychological safety in our context.

My own responses to workplace bullying have been wide and varied.

"It's all my fault."

"They have every right to be that upset."

"Acting like that is part and parcel of getting results from others."

"That's just how it is in the run up to deadlines."

Very rarely have I been able to see bullying for what it is.

Let's not get confused here. ACAS does some great exemplifying of what constitutes bullying - intentional or not - and what constitutes reasonable demands from a colleague or boss. These are worth checking out. (3)

So what does bullying look like through the lens of psychological safety and how can it help us?

"The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety" is the work of Timothy R. Clark (4) and explores how organisations and people grow in inclusivity and innovation as they progress through the 4 stages (pictured below)

As well as highlighting the ways in which an organisation can grow, the 4 stages can be workplace cultures in which different versions of bullying can try to gain a foothold.

The table below summarises some of the messages of bullying that can persist and pervade at each of the 4 stages. (5)


Key "test" of this stage.

Key 'message" of bullies at this stage.

Or you might also typically hear...

Inclusion Safety

Can I be my authentic self?

You don't belong here.

"We used to have a close-knit team before you came." "Lighten up. It's just banter."

Learner Safety

Can I grow?

You're slowing us down.

"This is more your speed." "If you're not willing to 'step up', then just let me know."

Contributor Safety

Can I create value?

You don't know what you're talking about.

"I'm not sure what you bring to the table." "Perhaps stay in your lane?"

Challenger Safety

Can I be candid about change?

You're making trouble.

"If you're so unhappy with the way we do things here, perhaps you should consider your options."

You'll notice that the key messages of the bullies are the flip-side of the key "test" of the stage of psychological safety. Think of the key tests as railway tracks and the key messages as obstacles that result in derailment.

What better way to derail someone who is wondering if they can grow, than to bombard them with messages of how slow they are and what a liability they are?

What better way to derail someone who is wondering if they can speak up about change, than to give them a label of 'trouble-maker'?

Also, bullying tends to keep to it's context. A bully giving messages of "You don't belong here" would be far too obvious in an context that had developed to the point of contributor safety. The bully would - in that context - be an observable outlier and at risk themselves.

So what?

Not all bullying is the same but all bullying is unacceptable.

Having a sense of which stage your context or organisation is at can help you focus on which bullying messages to watch out for.

And when you know what to look for, you can challenge it.


(2) ACAS website, Accessed 16/11/23

(3) ibid

(4) Available on Amazon. Other vendors are available.

(5) Table - columns 1 and 2, ibid. Columns 3 and 4, Ben Slater, 2023.

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