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
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:
- 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.
- The 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.
- Meeting 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?
- 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?
- We Can 'Moneyball' Bullying
- Capturing data about incidents of bullying is helpful in creating awareness of the problem. But it's
like trying to drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror. Forward-looking data that predicts
bullying incidents is also necessary.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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