Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 34;   August 21, 2013: Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying

Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying

by

Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
The Town Hall of Brighton, England, in 2010

The Town Hall of Brighton, England, in 2010. It was extensively remodeled and expanded in 1897-99, but it had the same basic form in June, 1862, when word reached the Chief Officer P.C. Neve, and Superintendent Barnden at the Town Hall, that one soldier, Pvt. John Flood, had shot another, John O'Dea (variously reported as Sgt. or Pvt.), in the Church Street Barracks, close by. O'Dea died shortly after P.C. Neve arrived on scene. Flood had been bullied over a long period by O'Dea. Just before the shooting, O'Dea had threatened Flood with flogging when he came off guard. Investigation and trial ensued, and evidence of the bullying was presented. Nevertheless, in early August, Flood was sentenced to hang for the crime of Willful Murder. On August 17, a report appeared in The Observer that Sir George Grey, Home Secretary, had advised the Queen of the extenuating circumstances of Flood's case (i.e., the bullying), and the Queen had reduced his sentence to penal servitude for life.

This is a rare case in which witnesses were willing to come forward and offer evidence of bullying. Typically, witnesses are very reluctant to do so, because they fear retribution by the bully. In this instance, however, the bully having died, ample evidence of bullying was available, and it is probably that evidence that saved Flood's life. Read a detailed account of the events in Brighton and Hove: Murders and Misdemeanours, by Janet Cameron.

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 target
motivated 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.
Deniability
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: So You Want the Bullying to End: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs 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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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 mixed stand of aspen and pine in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and Washington stateHow 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.
Gregory B. Jaczko, the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).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?
A human marionetteManipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressStrategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cracking walnuts with a nutcrackerComing February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingAnd on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.

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