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.
- 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.
- 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 conflictthe 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.
- 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.
- 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 Top Next Issue
Is 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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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Deniable 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.
- Biological Mimicry and Workplace Bullying
- When targets of bullies decide to stand up to their bullies, to end the harassment, they frequently
act before they're really ready. Here's a metaphor that explains the value of waiting for the right
time to act.
- How Workplace Bullies Use OODA: I
- Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time rely on more
than mere intimidation to escape prosecution. They proactively shape their environments to make them
safe for bullying. The OODA model gives us insights into how they accomplish this.
- Rapid-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?
- What Micromanaging Is and Isn't
- Micromanaging is a dysfunctional pattern of management behavior, involving interference in the work
others are supposedly doing. Confusion about what it is and what it isn't makes effective response difficult.
See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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