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

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesAre you being targeted by a workplace bully? 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 USD 9.99. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendvGGkSgyctbuicRgner@ChacjvZujVsFltNdLexNoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

A multi-function phoneDeniable Intimidation
Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
A thiefLooking the Other Way
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
George III, King of Great Britain and King of Ireland, 1738-1820What Is Workplace Bullying?
We're gradually becoming aware that workplace bullying is a significant deviant pattern in workplace relationships. To deal effectively with it, we must know how to recognize it. Here's a start.
Palm trees blowing in a hurricaneDealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
Bowling pins for ten-pin bowlingSeventeen Guidelines About Workplace Bullying
Bullying is a complex social pattern. Thinking clearly about bullying is difficult in the moment because our emotions can distract us. Here are some short insights about bullying that are easy to remember in the moment.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenoFMdaesSkqIflhLHner@ChachOxZyOGeTRTbiFJMoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.