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Volume 11, Issue 22;   June 1, 2011: Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I

Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I

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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.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II  Next Issue

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