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Confronting the Shadows: Addressing Staff Bullying in Schools

Staff bullying staff can be addressed with informed strategies

In the nurturing halls of our schools, where we foster growth and community, a less-spoken of reality often lurks – staff bullying staff. This phenomenon, though uncomfortable to acknowledge, is a critical issue that undermines the very foundation of our educational values. Addressing this requires a delicate balance of theoretical understanding and pragmatic leadership, a challenge that every school leader must overcome with both resolve and sensitivity.

Bullying among staff in schools can often be conceptualised through the lens of power dynamics and organisational culture. Theories such as the Social Dominance Theory highlight how hierarchies within social groups can lead to dominant-subordinate dynamics, fostering environments ripe for bullying. Moreover, the Organisational Culture Theory suggests that an institution’s values, norms, and practices can implicitly condone or discourage such behaviours. It’s crucial to understand that bullying doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it’s often a symptom of deeper systemic issues that need addressing at the cultural level.

This veteran school principal with decades of experience often sees the subtle nuances of staff interactions. In workplace dynamics, especially within educational environments where collaboration and team cohesion are pivotal, subtle nuances in staff interactions can sometimes lead to overt hostility or covert negative behaviours. Here are a few examples:

Passive-Aggressive Communication: This can manifest as backhanded compliments, sarcastic remarks, or “compliments” that actually belittle the recipient’s efforts. For instance, a colleague might say, “It’s amazing how you always find time to socialise; I wish I weren’t so busy with my classwork to do the same,” which could insinuate that the person is not working as hard or is neglecting their responsibilities. This type of communication can create an uncomfortable environment and lead to mistrust among staff members.

Withholding Information: Intentionally keeping certain staff members out of the loop on critical updates, resources, or decision-making processes is a form of social exclusion that undermines their professional contributions. This might involve not inviting someone to a meeting, failing to copy them on an important email, or neglecting to share changes in student information or educational strategies. This affects the individual’s ability to perform their role effectively and can also sow discord within the team, as it may be perceived as a deliberate attempt to sabotage a colleague’s performance.

Social exclusion in a staff environment often lurks beneath the surface of everyday interactions, a silent current that can erode the bedrock of a team’s unity. Imagine the scene in a staff room where groups form naturally over shared interests and pedagogical approaches. Within these clusters, information circulates, support systems are built, and camaraderie blossoms. Yet, the impact is palpable when one teacher finds themselves consistently on the periphery, not by choice but by a subtle consensus that seems to mute their presence. The message is clear yet unspoken: ‘You are not one of us,’ a sentiment that can profoundly affect professional efficacy and personal well-being.

Undermining someone’s professional contribution, on the other hand, is a more insidious act that chips away at the individual’s professional standing and self-esteem. It’s the subtle but systematic questioning of one’s decisions in public forums, planting seeds of doubt among peers about their competence. It’s the faint praise laced with ambiguity, leaving others to wonder about the actual value of their colleague’s work. This undermining can take shape in a teacher’s contributions being attributed to someone else in staff meetings or innovative ideas being dismissed in a huddle only later presented by another as their own. It’s the failure to acknowledge a job well done or the offhand remark that belittles the significance of one’s role – “Oh, you’re just looking after the library today?” – as if to suggest that their work is of lesser import. 

I can recount a turning point in addressing this issue, “It was when I realised that silence and inaction was inadvertently permitting a toxic culture I knew we had to act decisively. For school leaders seeking to eradicate staff bullying, the following strategies can be effective:
•    Policy Development: Develop a comprehensive anti-bullying policy tailored to staff interactions, ensuring it is well-communicated and consistently enforced.
•    Training and Awareness: Conduct regular training sessions to educate staff on what constitutes bullying, its impacts, and how to report it. Encourage bystander intervention training.
•    Reporting Mechanisms: Establish confidential and straightforward reporting mechanisms that protect the identity and integrity of those coming forward.
•    Promote Positive Leadership: Encourage a leadership style across the school that models empathy, respect, and open communication, dissuading potential bullies from acting out.
•    Support Systems: Implement support systems for victims, including counselling and mediation services, to help them cope and resolve issues.
•    Regular Check-Ins: Schedule regular check-ins and foster an open-door policy to encourage staff to share concerns before they escalate.
•    Cultural Change Initiatives: Organise team-building activities and workshops that promote a positive school culture, emphasising collaboration and mutual respect.

Confronting staff bullying is not about pointing fingers or creating a blame culture. It’s about acknowledging the issue, understanding its roots, and taking proactive steps to cultivate an environment of support and respect. As educational leaders, we must ensure that our schools are safe spaces for everyone, staff and students alike. By addressing staff bullying head-on with informed strategies and a commitment to change, we can turn our schools into exemplars of healthy, professional, and nurturing communities.