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Part 1 of Unmasking bullying: A self guide to reclaim power

Words by Radhika Iyer.

Part 1: The bully’s space.

From the playground to the stage of world politics, the act of bullying is no stranger. By nature, bullying has the ability to quickly adapt and utilise new tools, hence making its appearance in the most unexpected spaces: Consider its current (insidious) avatar, cyberbullying.

Imagine for a second, a picture of a bully or an act of bullying. What image comes to mind? Often, based on popular descriptions and caricatures, we form a stereotype of who is a bully and what constitutes the act of bullying. Instead, there is no archetype of a bully nor are all acts of bullying easily identifiable and are labelled as such. Bullies (and the act of bullying) come in various shapes, sizes and personalities. But often we are blindsided by our preconceived image of a bully and bullying, that we miss subtle cues and warnings. All acts of bullying stem from the same source: power, whether it be in the form of pure domination (the stereotype that immediately springs to many a mind) or the need to feel some semblance of control over internalised chaos or helplessness. Thus, in some instances, people might not even be aware of the fact that, though unintentional, their actions can still be termed as bullying (something even you and I need to always maintain in our own awareness). In short, whether it is intentional or unintentional, bullying is about wielding power through whatever means and takes shape from top down, sideways and also from the bottom up.

My knowledge and understanding of bullying have been informed mainly from experiences in workplace situations. A form of workplace bullying that I have noticed is what I refer to as “inverted bullying”- a sub-category of the sideways as well as the top down, which can also be presented as a combined act. This is when the bullies invert roles, whereby allegations are made against the victims by the actual bullies to portray themselves as the aggrieved party. Most victims of bullying, in the workplace, would rather not report bullying because they are afraid of being labelled trouble-makers or the possibility of losing their jobs. However, in the case of “inverted bullying,” the bullies compile ‘evidence’ of the victims’ alleged unprofessional and aggressive behaviour to make an official complaint. Often the victims do not only suffer shock and humiliation, but when having to respond to these allegations, they find themselves unable to do so. This is simply because they often do not have a clear recollection of the events, given the allegations would often refer to incidents that date back months prior to the official complaint; and in some instances, the allegation is in fact an exercise in cherry picking from two or more separate incidents, taken out of context and presented as one and the same incident. “Inverted bullying” involves a group rather than a single bully- as the act requires more than one person to collaborate on the ‘authenticity’ of the concocted ‘allegations’ and also corroborate on the ‘evidence’ . From my observation, the ultimate aim of “inverted bullying” is to either force the victims to hand in their resignation, or to be fired from their jobs.

The issue of bullying, because of its insidious nature, is how do we correctly identify an act of bullying as such? How many of us have had the experience, while interacting with family members, friends, colleagues, acquaintances etc., of being told that either we are “too sensitive” or that the other person was “just joking”? Often these statements are a cue to how we react and respond- in that we question our own feelings. While it could very well be that the other person was just joking or that we could indeed be a tad bit sensitive (this is a topic that needs its own, separate, discussion), however, when does a joke cease to be “just a joke” and when is it no longer a case of simply being “too sensitive”? As, especially in this age of technology, where communication is quite ambiguous, abrasive and rushed, there is not a clear understanding of what constitutes as bullying and what does not. Thus, it is quite easy to make a wrong diagnosis, and it is for this reason why I often focus on the symptoms. For, all victims of bullying present a range of common symptoms. Bullying is not a one-off act, it is a systematic pattern of behaviour that results in its victims exhibiting ongoing symptoms that impact on their physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing.

In Part 2, we look at how to recognise the symptoms of bullying by providing a detailed analysis of symptoms.


Radhika Iyer is a freelancer who has worked extensively in the community development and community services sector. She developed a professional interest in conflict resolution and management as a result of working with diverse groups with competing interests. Radhika’s first forays into the area of workplace bullying happened by accident. In the process of helping clients to resolve what seemed to be legitimate workplace issues, she instead discovered that in a number of cases, the clients were in fact experiencing forms of bullying. Having since observed the impact of bullying, Radhika supports a strong move to educate and eradicate the culture of bullying. She believes that sustainable change requires a whole-of, holistic approach. Her mission is to empower people to take ownership and feel confident to address conflict and the issue of bullying


Bottom up: In hierarchical organisations, staff member bullies the manager or member of senior management to whom they report.

Sideways: A co-worker or peer bullies a fellow co-worker or peer.

Top down: In hierarchical organisations, the manager or a member of senior management bullies the person/people reporting to them.

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