Is Humility the Solution for Bullying at Work?

humility decreases bullying
Humble teams have lower rates of bullying. What is humility and how can you promote it in your team?

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Bullying at work is a big problem. Nearly 30% of Americans report that they have been, or are being, bullied at work. Bullying has negative impacts for employee wellbeing, including increasing burnout and decreasing physical health. The good news? Having high levels of humility on teams might be a way of combatting it.

Humility is being able to recognize and appreciate that you don’t know everything – and that others may know more than you do. Experiencing bullying at work? Read more to find out how to cultivate humility on your team – or find a new, more humble team!

What is Humility at Work?

There are a few facets of humility that are important to look out for, or to cultivate in yourself. The first is being willing and open to learn from others. When someone tries to give you advice, do you listen and actually take their views into consideration? Do you seek out others’ ideas or consider that your way of doing things might not always be the best way? People who are humble display an open-mindedness that others have a lot to teach them. They aren’t motivated by being right, but rather by finding a good solution. If you struggle with this, try reminding yourself of all the lessons you’ve learned from others in your journey. If you’re closed minded to others’ ideas or ways of doing things, you might miss out on some really good insights!

Second, humble people admit that others know more than they do, especially when they are outside of their area of expertise. In other words, humble people are like “anti-know it alls”. They realize what they don’t know and seek out the opinions of others who know more than they do. They also ask for feedback from others so they know how they might continue to improve.

Finally, humble people recognize and appreciate others’ strengths. Instead of viewing someone else’s knowledge or skills as a competition, they are glad to be surrounded with talented people. They compliment others on their strengths and let others know they appreciate the value they add to the team. If you struggle with these two areas, try to write out the strengths that others bring to your team and think of ways those strengths might help you to improve. Accept others’ strengths instead of seeing them as a threat!

When you have a lot of humility, you want to learn and grow from others' expertise!
When you have a lot of humility, you want to learn and grow from others’ expertise!

What is Bullying at Work?

Most bullying takes the form of workplace incivility. Workplace incivility is rude or unkind behavior that is disrespectful, but low in intensity. A lot of employees are smart enough to know that showing overt aggression toward others at work is not a good idea. But, they can get away with more ambiguous behaviors that hurt the target and are still likely to go under the radar. When employees experience workplace incivility, they are more likely to want to leave their workplace and they struggle to perform at their best. How do you know if this type of bullying is happening in your workplace?

Some bullying behaviors can be easier to spot. For example, coworkers might say something demeaning or degrading to you. They might question your work or your authority, in ways that are unkind or undeserved. Further, they might try to get you to talk about or reveal information that is embarrassing or upsetting. These kinds of behaviors, while still more subtle, tend to be a little more apparent to the person experiencing them.

However, some behaviors might be even more difficult to detect. Bullying can also occur when employees ignore others, or leave them out. It also includes being addressed in an unprofessional manner (e.g., if a surgeon is constantly being called by their first name, while others are referred to as “Dr.”). Finally, it includes being talked over or not paid attention to when speaking or sharing thoughts or ideas. These more ambiguous behaviors can be particularly challenging because targets find it hard to admit that they’re experiencing bullying. It can also be hard to communicate to others what exactly the problem is.

When people are humble, they are less likely to undervalue or bully coworkers.
When people are humble, they are less likely to undervalue or bully coworkers.

Links Between Humility and Bullying

Recent research shows that high levels of humility in teams can decrease experiences of bullying at work. This is because humble teams have norms where members ask for feedback, recognize others’ strengths, and know they have room to grow. When team members are more appreciative of one another, and have less ego, they are less likely to try to take advantage of one another. When there are more members of a team who are humble, the team develops a more collaborative and caring group norm. This helps combat the likelihood that team members will bully one another.

But remember that a bad apple can ruin the bunch! If you notice that your team – or even one individual – isn’t humble, it might be good to take some time to reflect on each person’s strengths. Suggest that each member of your group also take time to think of their areas for improvement (including you!) and then ask someone in the group who has that skill for advice or feedback. If you want to become more humble, you can also select team members who have a growth mindset. We hope that these tips help to provide some avenues for decreasing bullying on your team, if you’re experiencing it! Check out our podcast episode on bullying for more.

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