Workplace bullying isn't only under-reported, it's also under-recognized — by targets, by bystanders, and even by perpetrators themselves. Many excuses for this failure to recognize bullying are founded on economics or on the definition of bullying. Economic "excuses" are generally of the form, "We have to get this work done urgently, and I guess I got a little too insistent, but they just weren't getting the job done." Definitional "excuses" are generally of the form, "It was a single incident, and I might have overstepped, but it won't happen again," or "Since when is harsh language the same as assault?" Excuses are numerous, but in the end, they're just excuses. Bullying is bullying.
To understand why bullying is so often unrecognized, three sets of tools are especially helpful. The first is a precise definition of bullying; the second is an understanding of the perpetrator's goals; and the third is a grasp of how cognitive biases skew our perceptions of the interactions among the people around us. In this post, I address definitions of bullying and the goals of perpetrators. Next time, I'll consider cognitive biases.
Definition of workplace bullying
Definitions of workplace bullying To understand why bullying
is so often unrecognized,
we need a definition of
bullying, an understanding
of the perpetrator's goals,
and a grasp of how cognitive
biases skew our perceptionsdo vary, but most definitions that I've seen are expressed in terms of observable behavior. Although these definitions are both numerous and authoritative, I find them unsatisfactory. My own view is that the lived experience of the target is of central importance. And because targets experience bullying incidents that aren't always observable by others, definitions of bullying ought not rely solely on observably harmful behavior. Here is the definition I prefer:
Workplace bullying is any aggressive behavior, associated with work, and primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm to others.
Nothing in this definition specifically requires that the behavior be part of a repeated pattern. Nothing in this definition requires that the perpetrator have (or not have) an ostensible motive associated with work. If the immediate goal of the perpetrator is inflicting physical or psychic pain on another person, the behavior is bullying, even if it consists of a single incident.
Nearly all other definitions require that incidents of bullying be "sustained over time," or "part of a repeated pattern," or "part of a campaign." I reject this notion. After a single incident, from the target's perspective, there is a continuous fear that the perpetrator might attack again. After a single incident, from the target's perspective, even a sidelong glance by the perpetrator can be experienced as another attack. After a single incident, from the target's perspective, even an attack on a different target can be experienced as a stern reminder that another attack on the target is possible. Once attacked, the target is under constant threat. Once attacked, the target experiences being bullied even when outside observers see nothing at all. That's why I don't require a pattern of overt attacks in my definition of bullying.
Because the conventional definitions of bullying require the presence of a series of observable attacks, much bullying escapes notice.
The perpetrator's goals
The second reason why so much bullying escapes notice is that perpetrators are clever. The goals of the perpetrator are designed to support bullying the target for as long as possible and as intensely as possible without risking harm to the perpetrator. The perpetrator's goals are:
- Harm the target either directly or through proxies
- Witness the target's pain and suffering
- Prevent the target's escape
- Avoid disciplinary action for the bullying
Preventing the target's escape is perhaps the subtlest and cleverest element of this set of goals. It's often accomplished not by force, but by persuading the target that (a) there is no opportunity for employment other than the target's current position; and/or (b) there is hope that the bullying has ended or soon will end if only the target can meet a (possibly unspecified) behavioral standard. Both propositions are utterly false, but the perpetrator's degree of success in instilling these hopes and beliefs in the target's view of the world is a measure of the perpetrator's skill.
Relative to my original question about unrecognized bullying, the perpetrator's fourth goal — avoiding disciplinary action — is perhaps the most significant. Perpetrators employ a variety of tactics. Here are a few, expressed as a "handbook for perpetrators:"
- Bully covertly. Do nothing anyone other than the target can witness.
- Choose targets who are so intimidated that they won't file complaints.
- If the targets aren't intimidated about complaining, threaten them until they are.
- Become so important to the organization that disciplinary action is out of the question.
- Have a supervisor who will protect you.
- Have a proxy carry out the actual bullying deeds.
Bullies understand all this, though possibly at an intuitive level. They also understand (intuitively) how cognitive biases limit the ability of targets or observers to identify bullying activity. I'll look at cognitive biases next time. 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:
- 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: II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's
dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration
of the problem of bully chairs.
- 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?
- Strategy for Targets of Verbal Abuse
- Many targets of verbal abuse at work believe that they have just two strategic options: find a new job,
or accept the abuse. In some cases, they're correct. But not always.
- Double Binds at Work
- At work, a double bind arises when someone in authority makes contradictory demands of a subordinate,
who has no alternative but to choose among options that all lead to unwelcome results. Double binds
are far more common than most of us realize.
See also Workplace Bullying and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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