Definitions vary, but my definition of workplace bullying is any aggressive behavior associated with work and intended to cause physical or psychological harm to others. Social isolation harms others, usually psychologically, by depriving them of social contact within the workgroup, or, for that matter, anywhere at work. Because everyone's need for social contact is unique, bullies tailor the kind and degree of social isolation to ensure that the target finds it painful.
Here are some social isolation tactics used by bully supervisors on target subordinates.
- Assigning the target to a remote site with few co-located peers
- Assigning the target to tasks that require far more travel than peers must endure
- Assigning the target to tasks that prevent the target from participating in meetings face-to-face, while most other peers can
- Assigning the target to tasks that prevent the target from participating in meetings at all
- Assigning the target to tasks on which the target must work alone, while peers work on tasks that allow or require collaboration
- Inviting the target's colleagues to lunch, while excluding the target
- Implicitly or explicitly threatening any of the target's peers who engage in social connection with the target
- When group members go to lunch together, the bully supervisor sits at a table too small for everyone, relegating the target to another table, with as few peers as possible
Bullies whose targets are their own supervisors, or their peers, must use different tactics, but they rarely have difficulty adapting the above methods.
Three factors explain why bullies find social isolation tactics so attractive.
- Vicarious experience of psychic pain
- Most bullies are Unlike many other means of inflicting
harm, social isolation requires the
cooperation of everyone who has
social contact with the targetmotivated by a desire to inflict psychic or physical pain on others. Typically, they want to actually observe the target suffering. Social isolation provides the elation the bullies seek, if the isolation is complete enough to cause observable suffering.
- The thrill of power
- Unlike many other means of inflicting harm, social isolation requires the cooperation of everyone who has social contact with the target. By successfully isolating their targets socially, bullies receive validation of their power to enlist that cooperation.
- Social isolation, cleverly executed, is deniable. That is, if an investigation occurs, the bully can credibly deny having done anything with the intention of causing harm. And targets can't be certain that the isolation was carried out with the intention of inflicting harm. This makes social isolation a favorite tactic of the covert bully.
Some targets respond to social isolation by soldiering on, seeking an end to social isolation by trying to show they are unaffected. This only tells the bully that increased isolation or new tactics are necessary, because the tactics used so far aren't causing observable suffering. Anyway, ending the social isolation isn't the goal — ending the bullying is the goal. More on that next time. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Intimidation Tactics: Touching
- Workplace touching can be friendly, or it can be dangerous and intimidating. When touching is used to
intimidate, it often works, because intimidators know how to select their targets. If you're targeted,
what can you do?
- Some Truths About Lies: II
- Knowing when someone else is lying doesn't make you a more ethical person, but it sure can be an advantage
if you want to stay out of trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: I
- Most meetings have chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the chair "owns"
the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This
view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
- 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?
- Dealing 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?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
- And on April 3: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I
- When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap. Available here and by RSS on April 3.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.