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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 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!

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Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
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See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
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Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.

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