Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 22;   June 1, 2011: Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I

Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I

by

Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict simply do not work for bullying. In this Part I, we contrast bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. This behavior is part of a complex of behaviors that determine the mating rights of bulls. In effect, the species uses conflict as a means of determining and preserving genetic quality. Yet, bulls rarely attack each other for any other reason. That is, once a bull has acquired a harem, he engages in conflict with other bulls only when he perceives a challenge to his control of that harem. And bulls without harems challenge others only as a means of gaining harems.

The goal-oriented conflict among bull elk stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of human bullies. The human bullies attack not to achieve any particular goal, but to express dominance over others. Rather than attacking those who possess something they desire, human bullies often attack those who are weak, powerless, and incapable of effective defense. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Confusion about workplace bullying is one reason why bullies are as successful as they are. Central to the confusion is the mistaken belief that we can address bullying using the same approaches we use to deal with toxic conflict. To untangle this confusion, let's start by exploring conflict.

Conflict can be either creative or destructive, or both. Two experts disagreeing about how to solve a problem can be in conflict. The result might be a new approach, not conceived by either party, and which combines their two ideas in a result superior to both. That's the nature of creative conflict.

By contrast, the same two experts might assassinate each other's characters, or sabotage one another's efforts. That's destructive conflict, sometimes called toxic conflict.

Bullying is always toxic. It has no creative form. To understand why this is so, we must understand how bullying differs from other forms of toxic conflict.

Perpetuation
In ordinary toxic conflict, either party might undertake aggressive actions that perpetuate the conflict.
In bullying, we can easily identify the party responsible for the vast majority of aggressive, perpetuating actions. The bully's target rarely undertakes aggressive action.
Provocation
In ordinary toxic conflict, either party can initiate the conflict, either by accident or by intention.
In bullying, In ordinary toxic conflict,
either party might undertake
aggressive actions that
perpetuate the conflict
the bully is almost universally the initiator. Often, the target has provided no apparent provocation at all, or the bully's provocation story lacks substance, plausibility, or coherence.
Goal
The goals of the participants in ordinary toxic conflict are usually real and symmetric. They include content, reciprocity, self-defense, or expressions of rage.
In bullying, the bully seeks to demonstrate control and power over the target. The target usually has no goal at all, other than seeking an end to the bullying.
Denial
In ordinary toxic conflict, both parties agree — at least privately — that a conflict is underway.
In bullying, the bully usually denies that bullying is taking place, often with adroitly crafted explanations for incidents of aggressive behavior. Ironically, many targets also deny that bullying is taking place, though they usually agree that they are the targets of aggression.
Perceived balance of power
In ordinary toxic conflict, there is general consensus that the power of each party over the other is in relative balance.
In bullying, the consensus perception is that the bully's power over the target is far greater than the target's power over the bully.

Perhaps the inner experiences of the participants provide the most dramatic contrast. In ordinary toxic conflict, both parties have similar experiences of frustration, anger, hatred, or rage. In bullying, bullies experience elation and validation of their power, while targets experience humiliation, shame, agony, and feelings of worthlessness.

In Part II, we examine how these differences influence the effectiveness of the tools we use for dealing with ordinary toxic conflict.  Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II Next issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

Threatened and fearfulThe Costs of Threats
Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships, and create an atmosphere of fear.
Comparision of brain scans before and after a concussionMeeting Bullies: Advice for Chairs
Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public. When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
An Africanized honeybee, also known as a killer beeRapid-Fire Attacks
Someone asks you a question. Within seconds of starting to reply, you're hit with another question, or a rejection of your reply. Abusively. The pattern repeats. And repeats again. And again. You're being attacked. What can you do?
A human marionetteManipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators.
Disappointment that has escalated through frustration and possibly to angerAnticipatory Disappointment at Work
Disappointment is usually unpleasant, and sometimes benign. But when it occurs before we have evidence of bad news — when it is anticipatory — disappointment can be unnecessary and expensive. What is anticipatory disappointment? What are the risks?

See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

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