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Why talent is never an excuse for bullying

Consultancy 23rd May 2022

The idea of the ‘artistic temperament’ — the bully/genius — is a stupid myth, says Bafta-winning director Brian Hill, maker of new documentary Toxic.

The short film tells the stories of four employees working in different parts of the media industry, in TV and film. One talks about “months of mental torture” and being made to take the blame for any problems when they were raised; another of how she needed to explain to her young children why she was crying when her boss kept calling her at home. “The people at the top won’t intervene to deal with [bullying] as long as the bullies deliver,” says an employee in the film. “Ratings are more important than the welfare of the workers.” The testimonies are voiced by actors because of the fear of the implications for careers.

 “People are frightened to reveal themselves, because they think they’ll be blacklisted and won’t get jobs if they report bullies at work,” said Brian Hill. “People fear their income will suffer, and they won’t get a good reference.”

 Research by the Film and TV Charity in 2022 among 2,000 workers in the UK’s film and TV industries suggested that 56% had personally experienced bullying in the past year. 16% said that if they’d reported the problems the situation “got worse”.

The media industries are an example of a sector with a particular kind of culture. Where there’s huge amounts of pressure on one-off projects to succeed, alongside a mix of strong personalities. ‘Star power’ plays a large part — and the surfaces of glamour aren’t always what they seem. The toxic workplace remains a relatively common phenomenon in general according to studies. Surveying 40,000 employees across 125 employers (including Netflix and Pinterest), workplace consulting company Emtrain found that signals of a toxic environment were fairly typical. For example, 83% of employees said they wouldn’t report harassment if they saw it; 41% were not confident that management would take a harassment complaint seriously.

Toxic cultures in workplaces are bad for morale, engagement and performance. There is now also research evidence that employees who work in an environment of poor management — where there are unreasonable demands, a lack of autonomy and recognition and low levels of psychological safety — are three times more likely to suffer from depression.

There can be very reasonable explanations for why bosses and managers in whatever sector are making extra demands. None of these things necessarily mean a workplace is toxic. Grievances and conflict aren’t unhealthy in themselves — they’re often the natural result of bringing diverse groups of people together into teams, and also a signal that people care about their contribution and role at work.

Bullying happens when there’s no conversation — when the power is all on one side and concerns end up being buried. There’s no conversation because there’s a lack of trust in the organisation, the people and the wider culture, which is a huge problem. All organisations should be aiming to have a ‘clear air’ culture. This happens when employees have enough confidence in their organisation (and each other) to speak up and know that they will be listened to, and understood in the right way. This only comes with the right skills and the right informal channels. The option of mediation for early interventions and not as a last resort; a habit of open conversations, both scheduled and unscheduled, and the qualities needed to make them ‘good’ conversations, whether  they involve challenges and difficult situations or not: listening skills, empathy and self-awareness; all those things that make the difference between knee-jerk irritation and assumptions and constructive, grown-up ways forward.