“I suggest you rethink that care plan,” said the co-ordinator to me, quietly, but in front of a group of doctors.
Nothing so wrong with that. But in the context of daily puts downs, blank stares and a lack of humour or respect, it forms a pattern of bullying.
To summarise Aryanne Oade, author of ‘Free Yourself From Workplace Bullying’, bullying is made up of:
- Personal attacks which you find emotionally or professionally harmful
- Deliberate attempts to undermine you
- Deliberate attempts to remove power from you, especially when the bully keeps the power for themselves
At first, it can present as the staff member testing to see if you react.
If you wobble at an nonconstructive piece of criticism - ‘that’s a mistake that I’ve never seen on this ward – ever’ - it can then progress to more frequent attacks.
But even though I've read all the books and have experienced bullying a few times, it's still really hard for me to react well.
When I face bullying behaviour, I experience mental and emotional confusion. I don’t want to think badly of anyone so my first instinct is to think I've misunderstood or I'm overreacting.
The co-ordinator I'm writing about was particularly bewildering because I’d seen her been kind to women in her care. She had amazing clinical skills as a midwife.
And yet she was horrible to me.
I assumed it was my fault, that I wasn’t up to scratch, that perhaps I was annoying. That I should be able to show her what bringing me down in front of the doctors was doing to my confidence.
Surely if I could get into her head and heart I could convince her to be kind?
If you’re reading this and you relate you’re likely an empathetic, gifted student or midwife and we’re lucky to have you in the profession.
But with the greatest respect, this is the one situation in midwifery where I want you not to empathise.
Empathy is not going to work with someone who has chosen to use aggression in the workforce. This co-ordinator had chosen to remove my power so it's unlikely she had any interest in emotionally supporting me. I believe she already felt entitled and like she belonged at that hospital, and experienced little to no self-doubt. Me reaching out to her and explaining how I felt was unimportant to her.
This all sounds awful but the upside is, knowing how things can be will help you develop coping skills.
As a midwife you need many social skills in your toolbox. You don’t always have to be upfront and honest about your vulnerabilities with every team member and hope that they will have your best interests at heart. Sometimes clearly stating your boundaries and showing you’re not going to be bullied is the best thing you can do for the women and your workforce.
If you’re in a bullying situation, I would strongly suggest you get Aryanne Oade’s book.
You have no idea how much power you have in small moments.
Taking on someone older and more experienced can be done if you’re clever about it, stand up for yourself and remain calm.
Looking back, I had many opportunities to put things right. Once I lost my marbles and was using an obstetric wheel to work out a woman was term + 1 (doh!) and once I forgot to label something in the fridge. On both of these occasions I acquiesced to bullying behaviour because I felt I deserved to be ‘told off’.
But I was learning. I could respond carefully and accurately at times. I wasn’t letting my professional power be taken away nearly as much.
There’s a sense of personal accomplishment and breakthrough to be had. The ability to set professional boundaries is an essential part of midwifery.
A couple of years later I saw the co-ordinator out having coffee. By this point she’d retired. It would make a better story to say that she was like Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada, swinging a handbag and an expression of disgust under her sunglasses but she was out with a group of women and a toddler, sweetly laughing, drinking tea and ordering scones.
Thinking that holding a grudge wasn’t my style, I actually went and said Hi.
She looked a bit surprised but greeted me politely. Then she praised my midwifery skills and I thanked her and left.
I honestly don’t know whether she felt guilty, had no idea she’d been bullying me or simply wanted to keep things peaceful in front of friends.
It reminded me that she was just a person after all.
But save the empathy for the women and your colleagues that value it. They’ll get more out your kindness than a bully would get from five years of you trying to scale their walls.
This all sounds very severe - but the flip side is, if you show strength to someone with bullying characteristics, in a way that's the most empathetic thing you could do. You're not stooping to their level but you are showing you understand the dynamic going on. If I'd have been a push over, I never would have had the strength to approach the co-ordinator when she'd retired. Who knows, perhaps she appreciated me standing up for myself in the long run.
Have you read Aryanne's book? Have you got strategies to deal with such situations and people?
Let me know in the comments below. And if you're in a workplace bullying situation right now, I'm sending you strength and support.
*(details have been changed to preserve anonymity)