Important things that can’t be measured

‘Separation anxiety and how teachers can deal with it’ – that was my top Google Search for my first three weeks of teaching. I was very hard on myself about this, it seemed perfectly fine for a Junior Infant child to cry before school but I taught Senior Infants. I questioned my teaching, if only I knew what I was doing ‘wrong’, I could change it.

Looking back on it, I still wonder why that child suddenly became so anxious about going to school. I think about a literacy assessment I carried out that first week of school. I wonder did I excessively focus on measurable outcomes and subconsciously lose sight of the emotional needs of the child; her need for care, understanding and encouragement. Did these values that should have been at the heart of education become less valuable because they can’t be measured. The ‎results of the OECD’s PISA 2009, contributed to the development of ‘Literacy and Numeracy for Learning ‎and Life – Ireland’s national strategy to improve literacy and numeracy among children and ‎young people 2011-2020’. I began my initial teacher training in September 2011 and I remember this document permeating my experience of School Placement, improving literacy and numeracy was an urgent national priority. When I reflect on the practice of league tables, metrics, flow charts etc., I think about the negative consequences these practices have on teachers and students alike and I wonder who is it that benefits from this and who doesn’t benefit? Is it our economy that gains? ‘The Literacy and Numeracy for Learning ‎and Life’ document promotes ‘raising standards to continue to attract high-value jobs through inward investment’ and is ‘essential for the rebuilding of our economic prosperity’. While it is important, economic gain can’t be the sole purpose of education, and I wonder if we do not become clear about our educational values, do we run the risk that league tables will make decisions for us?

Maybe the child’s anxiety around going to school had nothing to do with assessments or lessons but something completely different, I’ll never know. Albert Schweitzer tells us that ‘sometimes our light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.’ I think that’s the wonderful thing about teaching, our connections with our pupils and colleagues can have a big impact. Michelle Obama’s wish for young people is for them to know that they matter, that they belong. She urges them not to be afraid, to be focused, determined, courageous and hopeful. Michelle Obama wanted to measure her success by the impact she had on people’s lives. That’s the funny thing about impact, it can’t easily be measured. You never really know the true impact you have on those around you. You never really know how much someone needed your kindness or how much someone needed you to believe in their capability.

Sometimes when I think about an excessive focus on measurable outcomes in education, I wonder about how this neo-liberal culture effects human connections that are so essential in education. I think about its tendency to harm relationships by promoting aggressive competitiveness as people protect their own interests in order to ‘get ahead’. Maybe it’s not surprising that some people are reluctant to share information and openness required for organisational learning to take place. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that our workplaces are stressful making the perfect breeding ground for ‘scapegoating’ where people displace frustrations on others which breeds further spirals of incivility.

Sounds like a toxic culture, doesn’t it? Mahatma Gandhi says ‘Keep your thoughts positive they become your words, keep your words positive they become your behaviour, keep your behaviour positive, it becomes your habits, keep your habits positive, they become your values’. Your thoughts, words, behaviour, habits and values become ‘the way we do things around here’ or the culture of our school. Culture manifests itself at the deepest level though people’s values and these values, attitudes and behaviour drive decisions and actions in schools. 

Every member of staff has a part to play in maintaining the culture of the school. Our voice is our power and our power (formal or personal) is our potential to influence others, but power is value neutral. It is how we use our power that impacts people’s lives. It can be constructive or destructive, positive or negative. It can be used to empower rather than to control and to humanize rather than to measure. 

John Wooden states; ‘No written word nor spoken plea, can teach our youth what they should be. Nor all the books on all the shelves. It’s what the teachers are themselves.” So who are we who teach? What are the values that we hold dear?

Virtual Self

The term virtual self is a relatively new concept but one that is becoming normalised very quickly. The term virtual is used in the computer sense of a person not physically existing but rather existing as a simulated computer digital image. Until recently virtual self was evolving on social media on a gradual basis or on a client demand basis. Covid-19 a global pandemic literally changed that course overnight, changing casual users to emergency users. Covid-19 changed how we live, work, socialise, exist and connect globally. The pandemic disrupted and repositioned the workplace/ school/communities with unprecedented speed. In early April 2020 in the span of two to three weeks, organisations across every sector sent millions of employees/students home to work or to school remotely. Without warning and in many cases, without preparation of any kind governments, workplaces, schools, were forced into the position of connecting, communicating, emerging and leading virtually, many for the first time.

A virtual self is a computer based replica of a person’s self which is the form, platform or profile used to explore the virtual world independently. We communicate with others and access the World Wide Web. Each virtual user has his/her unique personal virtual identity to connect to a digital connection or platform. A user can participate in activities by voice, text, two or three-dimensional graphical representations, real time videos with auditory and touch sensations. Virtual worlds can allow single users, multiple users and may be described as a digital platform with artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an advanced technology, made possible by the Internet that influences our everyday lives. Artificial Intelligence (AI) refers to an artificial creation of human-like intelligence that can work and react like humans.

A virtual self has access to a computer simulated world which involves social, relational stimuli while connecting to other virtual populace. Virtual self represents the intended, devised on-line presence pre-planned or prepared by the end user. The virtual user is in control of his/her on-line profile and can manipulate it how he/she wants to appear and interact in the virtual world. This may be positive or negative; honest or dishonest. Virtual users need to be consciously aware of their online presence. Virtual worlds are not just game play but include real life virtual classrooms, conferences and chatrooms. 

Governments and Giant Tech of the 21st century must collaborate and deliver educational resources to promote virtual safety and how it relates and can affect personal safety and wellbeing. Introduce global virtual safety-security-privacy programmes for every virtual user. They need to acknowledge and protect the human cost of the evolving virtual profit and mandate to uphold the value of the human self.


Beyond the tip of the Iceberg

A friend of mine uses an expression sometimes when describing people – he might say ‘That’s just Mary’s way of being in the world’.  It has a nice air of tolerance about it, (at least as he says it!) but it can also be more sinister, and it’s a phrase that comes to mind when trying to explain why workplace bullying is more common in some organisations than others. Some organisations have a ‘way of being in the world’ that makes it far more likely that the workers in that organization will be bullied. But in the case of an organization, we cannot be so blithely tolerant. Mitigation is necessary, as bullying leads to serious damage for those who are targeted but also those who witness it. A given that ‘way of being’, mitigation is required at the deepest level.

It helps to consider the problem of workplace bullying as an iceberg. Icebergs appear to be floating on the surface but in reality they are large masses of ice that are mainly below water and this is the part that is potentially the most dangerous.

The visible, above water, aspect of workplace bullying is usually negative behaviour enacted by one person, systematically, to another. Because this ‘tip’ is the visible part, it is often the focus of organizational interventions – attempts to address specific behaviours in isolation from the root causes. Focusing on what is visible is problematic for other reasons. It is not entirely straightforward as what is considered ‘negative’ can be subjective, at least at one end of the spectrum of negative behaviour, what Parezfall and Salin (1) call the ‘threshold’ for bullying. It varies between individuals according to experiences and their interpretations of a situation, and can vary within an individual according to context or perhaps because of other things going on in their lives at any point in time.

However, from an organizational responsibility point of view it is important that this subjectivity element does not allow the organization to ‘kick to touch’. Organisations can rather conveniently consider bullying to be in the eye of the beholder, a very dangerous positioning for workers in that organisation. In the interviews we have conducted, there are many clear examples at the other end of the spectrum of shouting, rumour spreading, ritual humiliation, which are negative and damaging in anyone’s books.  It is important that those who are responsible for protecting staff in organisations are aware that bullying can move along a spectrum to become very damaging. Whether the senior management of an organisation is willing to consider the fact that bullying is a process and that the less aggressive, ambiguous behaviours are early warning signs and to keep a watching brief depends very much their way of being in the world, and that is really what is below the water.

There are certain ways of working that have been established to be closely associated with higher levels of bullying. Excessive demand or work pressure, ambiguity or lack of clarity about roles, and poor levels of personal control over work are all associated with work-related stress but also with bullying(2-5). While for certain jobs, regardless of the organization, high demand and low control (for example waiting on tables in a restaurant, or working as a nursing aide) are the norm, for the most part organisations can take steps to mitigate against allowing their workforce to be constantly working under these conditions, if they wish it.

Other below surface factors include internal reward systems that foster intense competition(6, 7), such as what might be found in sales organisations, or Universities. Such systems do not have the explicit aim of fostering bullying but provide ample breeding ground for the micropolitical behavours that are common in accounts of workplace bullying.  And it suits the employers to ignore this feature of the work environment they have created.

This brings us to the deepest level below the water and the most pernicious way of being in the world.

While psychosocial risk factors such as excessive demand, low control and role ambiguity are seen as causes of workplace bullying, these causes have causes of their own. The purest expression of an organisation’s way of being in the world is its culture. Implicated in many qualitative studies as the root of bullying problems, it is clearly at the deepest level, and the hardest therefore to surface.

Culture is essentially about values and beliefs. How the founders or senior managers or in essence the top\powerful people in an organization view work, workers and how to motivate and manage their workers is the key to the organisations way of being in the world. Cultural beliefs that cause the causes of bullying are likely to include a belief that workers need punitive working conditions to ‘motivate’ them, need to be pressurised to achieve results, and if they deign to raise the issue of bullying, they are perceived to be slacking or a troublemaker. Also, the ‘target’ can be considered to be resisting being managed. If profits are valued over people, then it is inevitable that people will be mistreated.

Some researchers go further, exploring the idea that in some organisations, bullying is blind-eyed because it suits management to do so. For example.

as part of the labour process, management can and will use various means to maximise production and maintain control, and this can include bullying tactics, as the boundaries between unacceptable behaviour and legitimate management practice can be either inadvertently or deliberately blurred (8, 9).

But also, bullying can be blind-eyed because employers do not want the negative publicity that a case will bring, or simply because they do not try to understand the process and the costs incurred on the individual. Their way of being in the world is to see relationships between workers as fixable by mediation, a little like broken machines, with no real knowledge of human relationships and the complexities there forth.

Organisations can change. They change and adapt to survive in turbulent economies, so they can change too, to become more humane and ethical. Although our mental images of icebergs see then as large mountainous masses, apparently icebergs can flip over. And when they do, they are particularly beautiful.


1.          Parzefall MR, Salin DM. Perceptions of and reactions to workplace bullying: A social exchange perspective. Human Relations. 2010;63(9):761-80.

2.          Blackwood K, Bentley T, Catley B, Edwards M. Managing workplace bullying experiences in nursing: the impact of the work environment. Public Money and Management. 2017:349-56.

3.          Tuckey M, Dollard M, Hosking M, Winefield AH. Workplace bullying: The role of psychosocial work environment factors. International Journal of Stress Management. 2009;16(3):215-32.

4.          Skogstad A, Torsheim T, Einarsen S, Hauge LJ. Testing the Work Environment Hypothesis of Bullying on a Group Level of Analysis: Psychosocial Factors as Precursors of Observed Workplace Bullying. Applied Psychology: An International Review. 2011;60(3):475-95.

5.          Blomberg S, Rosander M. Exposure to bullying behaviours and support from co-workers and supervisors: a three-way interaction and the effect on health and well-being. International Archives of Occupational & Environmental Health. 2020;93(4):479-90.

6.          Georgakopoulos A, Wilkin L, Kent B. Workplace Bullying: A Complex Problem in Contemporary Organisations. International Journal of Business and Social Science. 2011;2(No. 3):1-20.

7.          Salin D. Ways of Explaining Workplace Bullying: A Review of Enabling, Motivating and Precipitating Structures and Processes in the Work Environment. Human Relations. 2003;56(10):1213-32.

8.          Ironside M, Seifert R. ‘Tackling Bullying in the workplace: the collective dimension’. In: Einarsen s, Hoel H, Zapf D, CL. C, editors. Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace London: Taylor and Francis.; 2003.

9.          Beale D. An Industrial Relations Perspective of Workplace Bullying. In: Einarsen S, Hoel H, Zapf D, Cooper CL, editors. Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace Developments in Theory, Research and Practice. London: Taylor and Francis; 2011.

Pie Wars – Why Workplace Toxicity is Thriving

The key to why toxicity thrives in today’s workplace is contained within the widely accepted definition of economics proffered by Robbins (1932) i.e. economics being the science of human behaviour as a relationship between ends, and scarce means that have alternative uses.  Some vital words within this definition of economics purvey the perfect ingredients for the cocktail known as ‘Toxicity’ to thrive within interpersonal work contexts – human behaviour, scarce resources, ends, and alternative uses.  Does this sound familiar?  It should do because these words reflect a reality germane to most workplaces resulting in the habitual engagement in what is termed as distributive bargaining.    

Distributive bargaining also known as zero sum gain describes interpersonal approaches to working with each other where the outcome must represent a gain for one party, and a loss for the other in areas such as compensation and benefits, and the allocation of scarce resources (Fischer 2013).  It is important to appreciate that the entities in which we achieve gainful employment are continuously under attack from largely uncontrollable external forces.  For instance, in the private sector we face a multitude of competitors whose raison d’etre is to be the most competitive in their marketplace.  So, if we make something or deliver a service, someone else is trying to make and sell the same or better at less cost to the market.  In the public sector, we continuously face reduction / removal of funding and we endure competition from other institutions seeking to avail of the same limited funding on offer.  In both public and private sectors, such external pressures create a veritable greenhouse for toxicity to blossom internally.

According to Durrè (2010), distributive bargaining leads to the creation of conditions in which toxicity is rife.  Toxicity refers to individual or organisational behaviours that are propelled by power struggles, personal gain tactics, financial disputes, status claims, unethical conduct, vindictiveness, and sometimes illegal means, manipulation and annoyance.  Toxic situations often involve actions that are ultimately defeating to organisational objectives, to other employees, and to ethical and professional standards. 

We are all aware of large environmental disasters such as Chernobyl 1986 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spillage of 2010.  These events occurred due to the failure of protective mechanisms designed to ensure that toxic agents are contained within a controlled environment.  At a much more subtle, but equally malignant level however, basic workplace protective boundaries are eroding more-and-more, exposing us to noxious behaviours, antecedents of poor work related mental and somatic health.  It would appear that accredited workstream improvement methods such as lean quality systems in fact perpetuate the very catalysts for toxicity to thrive by expecting more from less-and-less.  Regrettably, theoretical predictions about trends in work-pressure tend to be unanimously pessimistic. For instance, scholars anticipate an intensification of work pressure in more highly skilled jobs that carry greater responsibility, involve more complex tasks, and that require the constant updating of skills (Steiber and Pichler 2014).  In conclusion, within our work contexts, our pie is continuously shrinking, the kitchen is getting hotter, and it will get harder and harder to stand the toxic heat for us all.


National Workplace Wellbeing Day, make space for a sibling National Workplace Culture Insight Day!

“Come together by staying apart” is a phrase that we now use daily. However, its power has not seemed to waver. Amidst all the troubles and trauma that this difficult time brings, it is uplifting to see the committed efforts being exhibited by organisations today as part of National Workplace Wellbeing Day in order to promote awareness among staff to take care that they are healthy, safe, happy and well. It makes one wonder, what does this effort mean for organisations when the time comes for us to no longer stay apart?

Workplace culture is sometimes viewed as an abstract and intangible concept. This is far from the case. Culture influences all aspects of staff perceptions, decisions and actions in the workplace whether it is noticed or not. It has a significant impact on job satisfaction, occupational commitment as well as having the potential to positively or negatively impact workers.  This time out from the physical space of work might give us the much needed reflection time in which we might gain personal insight into the impact of organizational culture on our mental health and wellbeing.

Why not take a moment right now to think about this…

If you are working from home, has this has a positive or negative effect on your mindset?

What has it thought you about the culture of your organization?

What will you do to make positive changes to this culture on returning to work?

Sometimes wellbeing initiatives can feel superficial. Even worse they can be used by organizations to individualise the problem, using a ’fix yourself if you are stressed’ approach ignoring completely that the root cause might be the organization itself. We need to be very careful not to buy into the psyche that workplace stress, coping and resilience (or diminished resilience) is a personal problem. When employers create interventions without changing the causes of workplace stress and burnout it is akin to moving the deck chairs around the titanic. Let’s use this National Workplace Wellbeing Day to look deeper! The metaphor of the iceberg for organisational culture is very apt here. The intervention is what we see above the waterline. Let’s look underneath the waterline and really see what the issues are so that we can do something far more meaningful. Let’s take the opportunity that workplace wellbeing gives us to take look with fresh vision from our home locations. Who knows what insights we might gain that will enhance our wellbeing.

Scoot up a bit National Workplace Wellbeing Day… make space for your much needed sibling National Workplace Culture Insight Day! 


Beneath the Cracks Lie the Colours

We are delighted to introduce this guest blog post and artwork from teacher David Tidswell, who is clearly an insightful blogger and talented artist. 

I use to run. I ran slowly, but I ran. As all runners do, I faced injury. I have bound my ankles and knees tightly to alleviate the strain on my joints. It worked. It worked so well that I could enjoy strapless strides for weeks…until I couldn’t anymore. When the pain reappeared I re-strapped. Re-strap, run, repeat…until again I couldn’t anymore. I never looked at where this pain was coming from, what was I doing wrong and how could I change? Covering up the injuries that were a symptom of bad technique not only ignored the cause but exacerbated it.

Schools can be like runners, clambering to cover up obvious injuries. We use the first-aid kit of policy and procedure to cover wounds that need air to heal. We don’t look at the root cause of problems. We don’t have the difficult conversations which need to be had. Why? For fear of conflict? For fear of discovering the truth of our organisational cultures? Nowhere is this more notable than dealing with bullying and incivility in our workplace.

Teaching is a person-centric profession and with people come relationships. The word relationship often brings with it connotations of companionship, friendship and support but relationships can be toxic. A toxic relationship is not only one between two people who don’t see eye to eye. Toxic relationships can exist between people who are friends. Toxicity can lie in the content of the conversation not the absence or presence of it. What do we talk about? Who do we talk about? Why do we talk about them? Are staffroom conversations to make the school better? Or are they just to make me feel better about my insecurities?

These are the questions we need to ask. These are the niggles that become injuries. These are the wounds we need to expose to the light of day. Facing down these questions requires will and strength from those involved. The answers that are revealed may not be what we want to see. Unknown answers are causes to unseen problems.

Bullying procedures can be a long and arduous chore for all involved. It is the steep incline on our run. Who will reach the top first? The bully or the bullied? It is on this incline where our injuries become most apparent. The knees ache and the ankle twinges. People on the side-lines tell us we must push through. No pain, no gain.

Organisations can often focus too much on the individual incidents of bullying, ignoring the complicated networks that cause them or the culture that underlies a casual sense of acceptance.

Let’s press the reset button. Let’s treat people like people. Let’s care for each other. Let’s support colleagues struggling not comment from afar. Let’s build the culture which will make these injuries a thing of the past. When these incidence occur, let’s not accuse but instead explore.

Beneath the plasters that hide the scars of workplace incivility lies the path to creating a better workplace: beneath the cracks, lie the colours.

Tear off the plaster. 3…2…1.

If Not Me Then Who? If Not Now, When?

At a meeting recently I heard a colleague say that there should be no limit to kindness. On Twitter hastags of #BeKind #kindness abound, so there is no doubt that there is sense of the need for more kindness.  

Kindness is characterised by being self-aware and by caring about the impact that we have on others. It requires putting ego aside and engaging in empathy. In organisations where kindness dispositions are built into the very fabric of human relationships, incivility and bullying have no space to thrive.  Kindness as a way of being, fosters a workplace environment where people can flourish and where being at work can be a life enhancing experience. 

What is incivility really, but the absence of kindness? We know that anti-bullying policies alone have limited effect on the eradication of incivility and bullying in the workplace. There are a number of factors that influence this, not least of which is poor implementation. Our research has revealed that participants’ experiences were overwhelmingly negative in respect of organizational responses, despite the fact that organizations have invested much time in creating an anti-bullying policy artefact. There was clear awareness of failure or unwillingness to address the complex power relations in the workplace both in schools and universities. It is little surprise then that bullying and incivility flourish in these environments.

It certainly raises the question that if zero tolerance approaches are not working and if creating policies that require people to keep records of abusive behaviour are not working (not to mention the problems that this has on the resilience for people) why do organisations still rely on these ineffective policies.   The answer is complicated but is linked to a distinct failure to recognise that complex power relations underpin the problem and the organisation itself is a key player that feeds into and sustains the incivility/bullying dynamic. 

Clearly a different focus is needed.  Deeper understanding of the role of workplace culture is needed if we are to engage effectively with the problem. In parallel to violence breeding violence, conversely kindness breeds more kindness but we seem to be reluctant to give it a try. In the same manner as bullying breeds a toxic culture that ripples out into the workplace, kindness breeds positive work culture that also positively ripples out into the workplace.   We need to break the cycle of toxicity, and it needs to start somewhere.

A teacher wrote of our research that it “caused me to reflect on my own teaching journey. I for one will be standing up to improve the work culture in our schools.”

If she can, then I can and so can you… 

If not me then who?

If not now, when?

Food for thought,


Kindness- Wherefore Art Thou

Hello there and welcome…

Thank you for taking the time to join us and to read this Food for Thought space. This is a forum for the sharing of ideas and insights. Like many of us, you may sometimes have been in workplaces where you have seen real kindness between people that is worth sharing. Other times you may have seen quite the opposite and have been left with discomfort and a sense of ‘being wronged’ from the interactions you have experienced or that you have witnessed happening to others.

Mostly, this is brushed off as a personality clash or just part of working life. BUT! What is rarely highlighted in all of this, is that organisations really need to get to grips with the fact that when people have a sense of being wronged they can really suffer as a result and have nowhere to go with it, and so they carry it with them. We refer to this as institutional hurt. When organisations don’t pay attention to the idea of ‘psychological safety’ in their workplaces and when people carry workplace hurt with them, the culture of the workplace deteriorates, because what is seen is – that hurting others is how you get ahead. Our research has highlighted some quite toxic cultures that have emerged as a result.  

The behaviour in organisations research group (BORG…yes we get the Trekkie reference) seeks to draw together knowledge and practice in organisational behaviour. Here, in this space, you will read insights on the issues associated with workplace bullying, incivility and toxic cultures. We will share our research and our work with you.  Don’t worry it won’t be all doom and gloom, you will also gain insights about positive and health promoting workplaces.  So we invite you to join us on this journey and please get in touch if you also have insights to share, we will be delighted to hear from you.

And in the words of the wise one…Live long and prosper

Patricia and Margaret