Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 7;   February 12, 2020:

Unrecognized Bullying: II


Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, bystanders, perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. Confirmation bias is one such cognitive bias.
Three gulls excluding a fourth

Three gulls excluding a fourth. Social isolation is a favored tactic of perpetrators probably, in part, because it can be difficult to detect by casual outside observers. Even when targets register complaints with authorities, the evidence they supply can seem subjective, delusional, and overly suspicious. Authorities receiving such complaints tend to dismiss them more often than is justified by the facts.

A variety of cognitive biases can cause targets, bystanders, perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators not to perceive bullying behavior as bullying. Because the relevant cognitive biases act differently on different people in different roles with respect to the bullying, the space to be explored is two-dimensional. One axis is the kind of cognitive bias. The other is the person's role relative to the bullying. That is, for each relevant bias, we can describe how it could affect each role.

That's a big project. Too big for a weekly newsletter or blog. But I can demonstrate the approach with one cognitive bias. This post explores the effects of confirmation bias on targets, bystanders, perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators.

How confirmation bias affects targets' perceptions of bullying
Consider the case of the supervisor bullying a subordinate. Targets tend to believe that supervisors supervise; that the supervisor's role is to guide the target's professional development and to provide resources, guidance, and support as needed for the target to carry out his or her responsibilities. In short, targets want to believe that supervisors are benevolent. For many subordinates, this belief is consistent with reality. But when a supervisor bullies a subordinate, a target's belief in supervisor benevolence can function as an inaccurate preconceived notion of the supervisor's agenda.
Confirmation bias then leads the target to search for evidence of benevolent behavior by the supervisor, and to reject evidence of bullying behavior. It thus raises the level of evidence necessary for targets to finally accept that their supervisors are bullying. Confirmation bias causes targets to interpret the bullying supervisor's behavior as "tough discipline" or even "tough love" instead of the abuse that it is.
How confirmation bias affects bystanders' perceptions of bullying
Bystanders are witnesses of bullying behavior who aren't themselves current targets of the perpetrator, and who haven't been targets of that perpetrator in recent memory. Bystanders do see what's happening — both the aggressive behavior of the perpetrator and the pain experienced by the target. Some bystanders recognize the behavior as bullying. But some do not. The question is: why do some bystanders fail to recognize bullying as such? For some bystanders, confirmation bias provides an answer.
Because most bystanders Cognitive biases can cause targets,
bystanders, supervisors of
perpetrators, and perpetrators
not to perceive bullying
behavior as bullying
of common bullying incidents are peers of the targets, let's consider that case. I'll refer to the target as Tracey (for Target), one of the bystanders as Brian (for Bystander), and the perpetrator as Phillip (for Perpetrator). Suppose Brian witnesses an incident in a meeting in which Phillip bullies Tracey. Feeling extreme discomfort, Brian doesn't want to intervene or even exit the meeting, because he fears that Phillip would interpret these acts as criticism. Brian fears that he might then become Phillip's next target.
So Brian keeps his counsel. He isn't proud of this, but he isn't aware of a safe alternative. Because he doesn't supervise Phillip, he feels no obligation to teach Phillip about manners or courtesy. He wants to believe that Phillip's behavior is harsh, tough, and maybe even rude, which enables Brian to see Phillip's behavior as something other than bullying. And it sets up a confirmation bias for Brian. He interprets everything he observes within a framework of rude behavior. Protected by confirmation bias, the question of bullying doesn't arise for Brian.
How confirmation bias affects supervisors of perpetrators
Some supervisors aren't perpetrators themselves, but they are meta-perpetrators. That is, they're willing to accept the "benefits" of having subordinates who, in turn, bully their subordinates or who bully their peers. I'll discuss meta-perpetrators briefly in the section below devoted to perpetrators. For now, let's focus on the nonperpetrating supervisor who has a perpetrator subordinate.
I'll refer to such a nonperpetrating supervisor as Olivia (for Oblivious). Confirmation bias can cause Olivia not to recognize as bullying the aggressive actions of the perpetrating subordinate, whom I'll call Phillip (for Perpetrator). Olivia wants to believe that Phillip's aggressive behavior is necessary to produce the results that Olivia so eagerly desires. Olivia is reluctant to recognize Phillip's behavior as bullying because she might then be obliged to intervene, and she fears that intervening could compromise Phillip's performance. Olivia wants to believe that Phillip's behavior is merely tough, rather than bullying. And so Phillip's bullying goes unrecognized.
How confirmation bias affects perpetrators
People who intentionally harm others are available in wondrous variety. Among these are people who harm others and who believe that doing so is a severe transgression. Some of these need a way of viewing their own behavior that protects them from charging themselves with bullying. They want to continue bullying while claiming to themselves that they aren't bullying. Tall order.
Confirmation bias to the rescue. It can work like this: "Bullying is bad. What I'm doing isn't bullying." That's the preconceived notion that forms the foundation of the confirmation bias. The perpetrator then searches for (and finds) definitions of bullying that don't fit the perpetrator's view of his or her own behavior. Any attribute will suffice. For example, a definition might require that the activity be repeated in a sustained campaign, while the perpetrator's pattern is to move from target to target after only one or two incidents. Or the definition might require physical abuse, while the perpetrator's pattern might consist of purely psychological abuse. Or the definition might require the physical presence of the perpetrator, while the perpetrator's pattern might involve directing others to carry out the abuse — an approach that makes our perpetrator a meta-perpetrator.
Confirmation bias thus serves to protect the perpetrator from his or her own self-condemnation for bullying, by excluding the perpetrator's actions from any class that could be called bullying.

Confirmation bias is just one example of a cognitive bias that can cause bullying to go unrecognized. Any cognitive bias that confirms our preconceptions can function in this way. Possible candidates include ingroup bias, the just-world hypothesis, the halo effect, and choice-supportive bias. Homework: pick one of these biases and work out how it can cause targets, perpetrators, bystanders, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Unintended Condescension: 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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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:

A thiefLooking the Other Way
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
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.
A modern roller coaster showing an inverted portion of the tripHow Workplace Bullies Use OODA: II
Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time are intuitive users of Boyd's OODA model. Here's Part II of an exploration of how bullies use the model.
Comparision of brain scans before and after a concussionMeeting Bullies: Advice for Chairs
Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public. When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
Gary Jones, Oklahoma State Auditor and InspectorWhen the Chair Is a Bully: III
When the chair of the meeting is so dominant that attendees withhold comments or slant contributions to please the chair, meeting output is at risk of corruption. Because chairs usually can retaliate against attendees who aren't "cooperative," this problem is difficult to address. Here's Part III of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The lies inside the truthComing May 25: On Reporting Noncompliance
Regulating compliance with process design in organizations requires monitoring process usage. Typically, process monitors depend on reports by process participants. In blame-oriented cultures, fear of retribution can limit what these reports contain. Available here and by RSS on May 25.
Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999.And on June 1: Mental Accounting and Technical Debt
In many organizations, technical debt has resisted efforts to control it. We've made important technical advances, but full control might require applying some results of the behavioral economics community, including a concept they call mental accounting. Available here and by RSS on June 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

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.