Workplace Bullying Or Coercive Control?

At a time when there is a focus on coercive control and domestic violence, we thought we’d consider links between these behaviours and workplace bullying.

Whilst people experiencing domestic violence during lock down maybe longing to get back to work as a place of sanctuary, we’re thinking:


how many people are dreading going back to work because of similar behaviours?


Bullying or harassment within the workplace is something that is acknowledged as behaviour that can occur and, if it does, will not be tolerated.  As a message of standards and values we have dignity at work policies, or simply bullying and harassment policies.  But does the term ‘bullying’ minimise the behaviour to school yard spats and ignorant immaturity? Or is it more?


Do we really understand the impact of this behaviour and is it so different to coercive control in personal and intimate relationships?

Workplace Bullying or Coercive Control?


Whilst there is no legal definition of  bullying in general, according to the Government bullying in school can be defined as behaviour that is:

  • repeated
  • intended to hurt someone either physically or emotionally
  • often aimed at certain groups, for example because of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

Workplace Bullying or Coercive Control?

No prizes for guessing that we would argue coercive relationships happen at work too, and can have just as damaging impact or consequence.

So let’s look at some definitions:

Coercive Control

Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.  Women’s Aid


Workplace Bullying or Coercive Control?According to ACAS:

Bullying may be characterised as Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

They include insulting someone by word or behaviour, exclusion, victimisation, overbearing supervision or misuse of power, together with making threats and deliberately undermining.


Signs You Work Within A Culture of Coercive Control

Our top 5 signs of coercive workplace relationships:

People Don’t Speak Up

Ever been in a meeting where there is an important item on the agenda or something people outside the session feel passionately about, but no one speaks up or they say a lot around the issue, but actually say nothing at all?

But then outside of the meeting they get together to say how bad the decision was, or what they would have said if they’d had the chance.  When really they did have the opportunity but are justifying why they didn’t speak up.

Workplace Bullying or Coercive Control?

Are you the one left hanging out to dry?!

The ‘People Don’t Speak Up’ that always get’s us – when something goes wrong or is being challenged and people ‘duck for cover’.  Eye contact is lost, silence is palpable, and inevitably one individual takes more than their fair share of interrogation.

What’s going on here is people are afraid to speak out through fear of repercussion or their ‘card being marked’!

Feedback Falls On Deaf Ears

So, your organisation may being doing the right things like employee engagement surveys, staff conferences, team meetings and staff suggestion schemes, but are they really listening?

We’ve worked in organisations and also seen within our consultancy work, reluctance to recognise the real problems in the organisation.  So what do we see and hear? Leaders saying it’s the staff, they don’t understand the pressures of the industry.  Leaders complaining about work ethic, commitment, or capability.

But our pet hate – leaders pushing feedback under the carpet that demonstrates they maybe at fault.

Of course it must be inadequacies within the workforce, not the leadership!

Dysfunctional Behaviour and Cliques

This manifests in both the leadership team and within staff groupings.

Within the leadership team we may encounter a narcissist leader who has such influence within the Board and organisation  that:

  1. other members of the senior leadership team find it difficult to challenge and don’t speak up, often feeling guilty for the behaviours they’ve observed;
  2. other members of the senior leadership team get an adrenaline rush being part of that leaders tribe.  We use ‘tribe’ as this can lead to a culture of hunting in packs;
  3. their charm and drive is mistaken for passion for the organisation.  They are often seen as visionary, the only one getting things done, and motivating others to jump on board.  In this instance the Board are often mislead by the vision, focus on performance or success and the leaders charm, so the toxicity goes undetected.

We mentioned ‘tribal’ behaviour.  In our experience, when staff are stressed or bullied, they either:

  1. go off sick with stress, anxiety or depression;
  2. their performance deteriorates.  The pressure getting to them, mistakes creep in, or significantly;
  3. Workplace Bullying or Coercive Control?

    Fight or Flight. Response to Stress

    they become disruptive or dysfunctional.  Such is the pressure and stress that they form alliances, tribes, hunting in packs to protect themselves.  They have in common fear within this toxic culture of coercive control.  Whilst they may be afraid to challenge single-handed, they feel safer in their tribe.  This can lead to silos, cliques and a blame culture lower down the organisation.  This time the blame motivated by survival rather than power.

Unfortunately, such is the powerlessness, teams become collusive rather than constructive, often feeling ‘stuck’ with no way out.  This is fight as they feel unable to take flight.

Rumour & Speculation

In the absence of clear communication and REAL relationships people create rumour and speculation, and before you know it that becomes reality.  By real we mean authentic.  People who feel they can be their real selves.

Everyone seems look out only for themselves.  Relationships and friends don’t feel genuine among peers.  People behave in a way that either keeps them off the radar or conforms to what will keep them on the right side of the leadership team.  There’s lots of conflict within teams, paranoia as well as gossip and speculation, particularly if there’s high turnover or levels of stress-related absence.

People feel vulnerable and speculate who is next to go.  Will they be pushed?  Will they jump?  Who will go off sick next?

Changing Goal Posts

These narcissistic leaders are often competitive, wanting to appear to be the best, visionary and innovators, who are popular influencers within their field or industry.  This means often there is little strategy or clear vision.  At best if they have a visionary within the leadership team, they’ll default to them under the banner of ‘collaboration’ or ‘thought showers’.  At worst they are influenced by the external world and competitors, therefore, goal posts are constantly changing in the name of being ‘cutting-edge’  or ‘dynamic’.

Inevitable what happens here is we don’t get the sense of satisfaction for completing projects.  Staff feel on a constant treadmill with nothing ever being good enough.  Ultimately this impacts on our mental health, confidence and how we feel about ourselves.

Have you connected with this article?  Are you at home dreading going back to work?  Let’s talk.