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

Unrecognized Bullying: I


Last updated: January 17, 2021

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!

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options. Available here and by RSS on January 27.
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When we consider the costs of problem solutions too early in the problem-solving process, the results of comparing alternatives might be unreliable. Deferring cost concerns until we fully understand the problem can yield more options and better decisions. Available here and by RSS on February 3.

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