In this week's Office Life blog, Laura Johnson discusses the different degrees and types of bullying in the office

You’ve been bcc’d into a private email between two of your subordinates where one team member is clearly trying to make another look bad. It’s a blatant attempt to sabotage a co-worker’s promotion prospects and signals ruthless rivalry is rife in your department. You know you should feel disgusted by this underhand behaviour and set out on a mission to stamp out such hostile habits but a little part of you is tempted to turn a blind eye. After all, there’s nothing like a touch of unhealthy competition to send productivity soaring, right?

Power struggles are ingrained within the natural pecking order of office life. The higher ups fight to show dominance over the minions and the underlings battle it out for their own chance at supremacy. This inevitably can have an unfavourable impact on employee relations. Workplace bullying is nothing new but it seems to be on the rise. In fact a report by law firm Slater and Gordon found almost six in 10 people claim to have witnessed or been a victim of bullying at work, suggesting offices are becoming more hostile than ever. Lingering job insecurity could easily be cited as an explanation for this amplified culture of intimidation – and it probably plays a significant role – but I would argue that innovation could actually be just as big a culprit.

Being heralded as innovative is arguably the most prestigious accolade a business can stake a claim to nowadays. But in striving to do ground-breaking, pioneering things, are we guilty of pushing our employees too hard? The pressure to achieve the extraordinary can make us more susceptible to not just tolerating but subconsciously adopting harsh behaviour in order to create an environment where boundaries are constantly challenged. Take the recent exposure of the draconian work environment at Amazon as an example. Innovation is definitely flourishing at Amazon; the company is bigger and stronger than ever and its founder Jeff Bezos is ranked by Forbes as the fifth-wealthiest person on earth. But this success seems to be at the cost of harmonious employee relations.

An article in the NY Times in August painted a bleak picture of Amazon HQ, describing it as a ‘bruising workplace’ where employees routinely weep at their desks and brutal annual staff culls are unashamedly justified as ‘purposeful Darwinism’. It’s an organisation where compromise is frowned upon and disagreement is encouraged, under the guise that conflict fuels innovation. Guided by 14 ‘leadership principles’ and the unrelenting vision of Bezos, Amazon is on a mission to encourage its people to be ‘peculiar’ by redrawing the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable workplace behaviour. For example, the article cites that the company’s employees should not only expect emails arriving in their inboxes well past midnight but also to reply promptly (or else expect a follow-up text message enquiring why they haven’t answered). The internal phone directory reportedly offers instructions on how to send secret feedback to a co-worker’s boss.

Amazon is clearly an extreme example and most of the people in the Slater and Gordon research who had observed or suffered bullying were probably referring to much more subtle behaviour. And this is where the problem lies; recognising what constitutes bullying isn't straightforward. In the absence of a formal legal definition, identifying the line where behaviour flips from being appropriately challenging to wholly unacceptable is tricky. If you look for guidance on diagnosing bullying, you’ll typically stumble across serious sounding symptoms such as being threatened, suffering humiliation, ridicule, victimisation and unfair treatment. Most of us would not aim to inflict any of these intentionally on a co-worker but it’s easier than you might imagine to be doing all of these accidentally.

Criticising someone’s performance (however well-intentioned) within easy earshot of others, partaking in repartee that makes someone the butt of an office joke, rolling your eyes (however discretely) at a co-worker’s suggestion in a meeting, habitually excluding someone from the tea round or just simply routinely offering up feedback a little too bluntly. These are all examples of how actions we shrug off as a by-product of a personality clash, no-nonsense management, office banter or worthy straight-talking could be misunderstood as bullying. And that Starbucks you ask a subordinate to pick up for you on their way into the office every morning, could it be seen as a belittling tactic to exert your authority? Quite possibly. It’s not always easy to spot a workplace bully in your midst. In particular if that (accidental) bully just so happens to be you.