Workplace Wellbeing: Is it Constructive Criticism or Bullying?

Discrimination and bullying take different forms. Often veiled with ‘constructive criticism. But knowing when the blurry line between constructive criticism and bullying has been crossed is key to developing workplace wellbeing for staff. 

Creating a safe and productive environment isn’t just about individual managers. Organisations committed to diversity and inclusion need clear systems for employees to report issues beyond their direct supervisor. Every voice deserves to be heard, and every case of bullying or intimidation must be taken seriously.

Sadly, despite promises of diversity, equity, and inclusion rhetorics, many organisations are still failing to translate these values into tangible actions. Leaving vulnerable employees, especially those from minority backgrounds, agency and contract staff feeling unsupported and unheard. The truth is in the numbers. 29% of people have been the victims of workplace bullying. That is a staggering close to 3 in of every 10 workers which would equate to 9.1 million of the UK workforce, according to a 2021 TUC report/guide 

It’s important that organisations have in place a system to Identify the red flags. With the understanding that ignoring the signs of bullying doesn’t lessen its impact. 

What are the key indicators that the line has been crossed?

Ignorance of what constitutes bullying doesn’t reduce its severity on the target and definitely does not also reduce its seriousness as abuse. So here are situations which can constitute bullying.

Frequency and Intensity:

  • Is it constant and relentless? if the criticism is happening all the time with fewer periods of respite and is with consistent undercurrent in your interactions.
  • Is there excessive negativity? When the criticism focuses solely on negatives with little to no positive feedback or recognition of your strengths.
  • How does it emotionally impact you? If the criticism makes you feel belittled, degraded, or fearful, and negatively affects your self-esteem and well-being.

Nature and Content:

  • Are there elements of personal attacks? If the criticism targets you personally, your appearance, character, or abilities, instead of focusing on specific actions or behaviours. Eg: If you hear words like, “you are not making any meaningful contributions” Or “You are not creative enough to fit in here.”
  • Or Comparing your work to an unrealistic standard or someone else’s performance can be demoralising and unhelpful.
  • Does it make you feel Humiliated and intimidated? If the criticism is delivered in a way that intends to embarrass, humiliate, or intimidate you in front of others, especially junior staff. Is it delivered harshly or dismissively?
  • Do you feel the criticism is a threat and manipulation? If the criticism is used as a threat or manipulation tactic to control your behaviour. Eg: when this becomes more frequent close to a probation review or appraisal or if your probation review is brought up immediately after every disagreement.

Power Imbalance:

  • Is the criticism coming from your superiority? If the person giving the criticism holds a position of power over you, such as a manager, supervisor, or colleague in a higher position.
  • Does it feel like a one-sided communication? If the criticism is delivered in a way that doesn’t allow you to defend yourself or provide your perspective. Or is dismissive of your perspective on the matter?

Impact and Intent:

  • Do you feel like your mental and emotional health has begun to deteriorate? If you feel the criticism is causing you stress, anxiety, depression, or other negative mental health impacts. Or you suddenly start developing body aches and pains, or some old triggers resurfacing. 
  • Fear and avoidance: You are beginning to lose your spark and flare. You feel afraid to speak up, express yourself, or even go to work because of the criticism.
  • Intentional harm: You sense the person giving the criticism is intentionally trying to hurt, belittle, or damage your reputation and some cases feels threatened by your skills and abilities and therefore wants to make you lose your job.

All in all, remember the subjectivity this could carry. What one person considers constructive criticism, another might find hurtful. Pay attention to your feelings and reactions. The context of the situation can also influence whether criticism is perceived as constructive or bullying. If you’re experiencing what you believe to be bullying, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to a trusted friend, colleague, or HR representative.

As a manager, It’s your responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and dignity, and no one should be subjected to bullying in any form. It’s important to pay attention to any behavioural changes in your team members, ask for their opinions on how to make their work experience more positive and listen when they ask to be treated better. If you’re unsure about a situation, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and seek support.

This article was originally written by Faustina Anyanwu and was first published on Linkedin