Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 21;   May 26, 2021:

Even "Isolated Incidents" Can Be Bullying

by

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.
A bullying manager

Definitions of workplace bullying are numerous (45 million hits in a recent Web search). Although there are minor differences among definitions, all definitions do include the intentional use of aggression by one person to inflict harm or physical or psychological pain on another person. But members of a very large subset of these definitions insist that aggressive behavior is bullying only if it's part of a repeated pattern.

Trouble awaits organizations that have anti-bullying policies based on definitions that require a repeated pattern of bullying incidents. Trouble awaits organizations that treat "isolated incidents" as merely destructive conflict or "personality clashes."

Defining bullying in a way that includes "isolated incidents" — and does not require patterns of repetition — is essential both for the safety of individual employees and for organizational health.

For individuals, this isn't a minor point. Being targeted in even a single incident of aggression can be debilitating. Targets suffer extreme distress. Some suffer sleep disturbances. Some change jobs, even relocating to do so. Some of their marriages fail. Some become depressed or abuse family members.

Nor is this a minor point for organizations. Organizations pay a high price in depressed performance if they fail to address isolated incidents of aggression, addressing incidents of aggressive behavior only if they are found in patterns. As I outline below, this happens because even one incident of aggressive behavior can have the same effects as a repeated pattern.

"Isolated incidents" can be as damaging as patterns

From the viewpoint of the organization, the damage done by workplace bullying incidents arises from its impact on the work performance of targets and witnesses. So-called "isolated incidents" of bullying can be just as damaging as repeated patterns of workplace aggression. Every incident of workplace bullying has the potential to have persistent and repetitive effects.

Consider theOrganizations pay a high price in depressed
performance if they deal with incidents
of interpersonal aggression only if
they are found in patterns
situation from the viewpoint of a target of workplace bullying. The target of a single aggressive act cannot know whether or when a second act will follow. Because targets so terrorized must necessarily assume that another incident could occur at any time, the effect on their performance is the same as the effect of a repeated pattern of aggression. The same dynamic applies to witnesses of incidents of aggression.

Why we must address even the "Isolated incidents"

Some might claim that while addressing isolated incidents of aggression is important, much more important is addressing repeated patterns of aggression incidents. Their claim rests, in part, on the idea that aggression incidents that comprise patterns are plainly more numerous than are the isolated incidents, and therefore they present a more significant threat to organizational performance than do isolated incidents. Three factors weaken this claim.

Aggression incidents have long-term impact
The effects of some aggression incidents don't "fade with time." Some aggression incidents can be so severe that the effect on the target can induce a condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). [APA 2013] [Rodríguez-Muñoz 2010] If that condition persists, the target can, in effect, relive the aggression incident when triggered by stimuli that the target associates with the incident. This can happen even if the perpetrator doesn't commit a second act of aggression, and even if the perpetrator isn't present or has permanently left the organization.
The consequent effects of aggression incidents that create targets who manifest symptoms of PTSD therefore can mimic the effects of a repeated pattern of aggression incidents.
Unrelated incidents of aggression can have effects equivalent to repetition
Some assert that the pattern of repetition required by their preferred definitions of bullying must include only incidents involving the same perpetrator and the same target. That is, a perpetrator who commits one and only one act of aggression on each of Target A, Target B, Target C, and so on, has produced a string of isolated incidents, but not a repeated pattern, because each target experienced only a single act of aggression. Some who define bullying as requiring a pattern of repetition would exclude these multiple-target single-incident cases.
Such a definition of bullying leaves organizations exposed to significant damage comparable to that from the single-target multiple-incident case. This exposure arises because subsequent incidents involving Target B can reopen Target A's psychological wounds. So if another bullying incident occurs involving another target, the effect on Target A can be as severe as if Perpetrator A had bullied Target A again.
Even if a subsequent aggression incident doesn't involve Target A or Perpetrator A, witnessing or otherwise learning of a subsequent aggression incident can have effects on Target A in kind and intensity similar to being bullied again by Perpetrator A. That is, for Target A, any other subsequent aggression incident, involving anyone at all, can produce effects similar to those of a repetition of Target A's first experience of workplace aggression.
And it can pertain even if Target A doesn't witness directly the subsequent incident — acquiring the knowledge that a subsequent aggression incident occurred can be sufficient to reopen Target A's psychological wounds.
Some isolated incidents are actually parts of patterns
One authoritative definition of bullying is this: "Bullying is the aggressive behavior arising from the deliberate intent to cause physical or psychological distress to others." [Randall 1997] One must surely wonder about the mental health of someone who engages in behavior the intent of which is to cause physical or psychological harm to others. Indeed, it is legitimate to ask whether someone so inclined would be likely to engage in such behavior just once.
Consider the case of a supervisor who bullies. In many organizations, to become a supervisor, one must work diligently over a period of years, if not in the substance of the job, at least in the political dimension. What could motivate someone to put at risk the fruits of those labors by engaging in any behavior that might be characterized as aggressive, abusive, or bullying? My own view is that aggressive behavior isn't the result of a rational choice. Many of those who engage in bullying do so as a result of a compulsion. And it is that compulsion that produces repetition.
Perpetrators driven by compulsion work diligently to protect their positions. One approach entails adopting tactics of concealment. They endeavor to control the number and identities of witnesses. They adjust their behavior so that charges of bullying are unlikely, or are deniable on plausible grounds. They choose targets who are unlikely to file grievances, or who won't be credible if they do.
In these cases, incidents we regard as isolated are not actually isolated. They're just the ones we know about. They seem to be isolated because we aren't aware of the other incidents that comprise the pattern.

Last words

Crafting organizational anti-bullying policy so as to focus only on incidents that comprise patterns of repetition exposes organizations to ongoing risk of depressed productivity. This happens for three reasons. First, isolated incidents of intentional interpersonal aggression can be as harmful as can incidents that comprise patterns of such aggression. Second, incidents of interpersonal aggression aren't "isolated." When targets of previous incidents learn of new incidents involving others, their experience can be similar to being targeted again. Finally, people who bully often do so as a result of a compulsion. That compulsion drives them to conceal their activities so as to evade detection. The result is that what appear to be single incidents of aggression might be just the known elements of repeated patterns.

Workplace bullying is any aggressive behavior, associated with work, and primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm to others. To protect employees and the organization from bullying, craft organizational anti-bullying policy on that basis. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Expectation-Disruption Connection  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!

Footnotes

[APA 2013]
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013. Order from Amazon.com. The conventional diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Although some incidents of workplace bullying do meet this standard, most do not. Nevertheless, symptoms consistent with PTSD have been observed in targets who have not been exposed as required by the APA standard. Back
[Rodríguez-Muñoz 2010]
Alfredo Rodríguez-Muñoz, Bernardo Moreno-Jiménez, Ana Isabel Sanz Vergel, and Eva Garrosa Hernández. "Post-Traumatic symptoms among victims of workplace bullying: Exploring gender differences and shattered assumptions," Journal of Applied Social Psychology 40:10 (2010), 2616-2635. Back
[Randall 1997]
Peter Randall. Adult Bullying: Perpetrators and Victims. New York, Routledge: 1997. Order from Amazon.com. Back

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See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Formulaic utterances are things we say that follow a pre-formed template. They're familiar to all, and have standard uses. "For example" is an example. In the workplace, some of them can be useful for establishing or maintaining dominance and credibility. Available here and by RSS on September 29.

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