What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. How bullying ultimately led me to a new career.
A toxic workplace almost destroyed me.
On 15 March 2019, it is the annual National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence. A day for schools and the community to stand together on this issue.
It’s a long time since I was in school. I do remember we had a set of unspoken rules and some people you simply avoided. I didn’t really pay much attention to bullies during my school years because it did not directly impact me or my close friends.
My three daughters made it through school without any incidents. I can only imagine how awful it is for kids who are bullied at school, the heartbreak their parents must go through, and the resources that it takes to try to stamp it out.
I became the target of workplace bullies
I first wrote about this in 2016 and have spoken about the issue of workplace bullying a few times since. Each time I speak about this issue people share similar stories. Some of the people I have spoken to have feared for their lives and have suffered devastating consequences of a toxic workplace. It is all too uncommon and bullying is one of the top reasons for absenteeism and lost productivity.
Face to face with my former bully
I was one of the escalating numbers of Australian employees targeted by bullying behaviour in the workplace.
As a former nurse of over 20 years, I often heard the expression that nurses ‘eat their young’ but my years of nursing were not like that.
Maybe it is because I worked in an intensive care environment for many of those years. When dealing with life and death situations, it takes focus and teamwork as well as trust and empathy, most of the time we were simply too busy! So I survived intact through that stage of my life.
It was when I had a complete career change and moved into the public service that I experienced bullying.
I was already coming to terms with a major life change
At the time, I was coming to terms with some major life challenges. A virus wiped out most of my hearing and as a result, I had to walk away from a career of over 20 years as a midwife.
I was fortunate to get the gift of a cochlear implant, and that was the beginning of my journey learning to hear again.
I was going well in my rehabilitation (it takes a long time for the neural pathways to learn to hear differently). I was juggling frequent visits to the audiology research team, intense learning at home as well as a full-time job and three teenage kids. Then the new manager started, and so did the systemic and prolonged bullying.
Smart bullies often don’t get caught
The bully and her allies were skilled at their cunning craft. They made sure they spoke out of earshot of others, waiting until no one else was around to verbally attack. Other behaviours included: sabotaging work, taking credit for work others had done, tossing humiliating remarks in meetings, spreading rumours, excluding members of the team and giving subordinates meaningless work.
I became the new target after speaking out after I saw others bullied by the same individuals. Initially, I didn’t understand why I was targeted. I was excellent at my job and respected by my peers.
From what I now know bullies often target people who are more technically competent or perceived as more successful than themselves.
As the toxic workplace became unbearable, it became harder to go to work. Some days I’d get off the train in the city, cross the platform and get back on another train home. The final straw came when I suffered a panic attack in the lift of the high rise building where I worked.
It got to the stage after 18 months where I couldn’t function at work. I sought the help of an independent counsellor. Up until that time, I had naively thought, perhaps the bully and I could talk things through, maybe even form a positive relationship. I was hoping management would stand by the policies that were there to ensure a safe workplace for all, but that did not happen.
The counsellor said to me that bullies don’t change, she recommended two options; either I could lodge a lengthy formal grievance process or walk away and get another job.
It was eight years ago that chose to walk away. What makes me disappointed is that I shouldn’t have felt like that was the only option.
One evening I attended the book launch of Bitch Fight by Vanessa Vershaw – a book about women bullying women.
As I arrived at the registration desk, I looked down at the sea of name badges, laid out neatly in surname alphabetical order, and I scanned the table for the letter E’s.
The brain is powerful when it comes to self-protection. I wasn’t looking for it, but one name leapt off the table, grabbed me by the throat and took my breath away (her surname was not the same letter as mine).
It was the name tag of the woman who was the leader of the small group of the nastiest women I have ever encountered in any workplace. At that moment I had an intense range of emotions purely by seeing her name in print. At that stage, I didn’t even know if she was in the room.
The impact of bullying is massive
How ironic that I was at a book launch on the topic of bullying, and the very person who led me to a complete meltdown was listed to attend the event. As I stared at that name on the registration table, her name in print screamed at me and I felt the same rise of bile in my throat that had become a daily occurrence at the start of my working day.
My survival instinct kicked in
I wanted to bolt through the door and leave as fast as I could, but I feared I might come face to face with her in the lobby.
I didn’t run despite my gut feelings. I managed to sit and listen to the speaker who bravely shared her experience of being bullied at a workplace.
My former bully was in the room sitting not far from me, a few rows behind. I wondered what was going on in her mind? Perhaps she had been a target of bullying behaviour herself. Maybe she felt some regret for her behaviour. I’ll never know.
Sending love and forgiveness
I didn’t speak to her, but if I had the chance (or the courage), these are the words I would have said – thank you.
In a new supportive workplace, I thrived. I got back on track with my cochlear implant rehabilitation, and I began my public speaking journey which helped me to build my confidence.
For the past eight years, I have immersed myself in learning the art of speaking and storytelling. I have discovered my voice and now teach and empower others to do the same.
I probably wouldn’t have followed this path if not for that person who bullied me – thank you.
We are the authors of our own stories. Fear is one of those stories we tell ourselves. That night I chose to write a new chapter of my story.
To my former bully – if you are reading this.
Thank you for giving me the courage and resilience to walk away and start over. Thank you for allowing me to redefine and recreate my story.
Every day we have choices and challenges. Today I choose to surround myself with positive people who support me. I don’t stick around with those who pull me down, and I have a zero tolerance for any form of workplace bullying.
Take care and above all be kind to yourself and others.
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Image. Max Lovensly Unsplash
This article first appeared on LinkedIn.