Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 6;   February 5, 2020: Unrecognized Bullying: I

Unrecognized Bullying: I

by

Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see some bullying as bullying.
Three gulls excluding a fourth

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 perceptions
do 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 Go to top Top  Next issue: Unrecognized Bullying: II  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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

Tornado in a mature stage of development (Photo #3 of a series of classic photographs)Responding to Threats: II
When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingWorkplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I
Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict simply do not work for bullying. In this Part I, we contrast bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
Congessman Darryl Issa (R-CA)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.
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
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.
A bullying managerEven "Isolated Incidents" Can Be Bullying
Many organizations have anti-bullying policies that address only repeated patterns of interpersonal aggression. Such definitions expose the organization and its people to the harmful effects of "isolated incidents" of interpersonal aggression, because even isolated incidents can be bullying.

See also Workplace Bullying and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Tuckman's stages of group developmentComing December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
An actual straw manAnd on December 14: Straw Man Variants
The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.