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Volume 24, Issue 10;   March 6, 2024: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying

Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying


Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing.
Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938. It was at this meeting that the Munich Agreement was concluded, on 30 September.

Note that the greeting occurs at a point where Hitler is standing at a level two steps higher than Chamberlain — high enough to communicate a message of superiority, but not so high as to make a handshake impossible. Image (cc) Deutsches Bundesarchiv, courtesy Wikipedia.

The single most important insight about workplace bullying is a clear understanding of what bullying is and is not. For example, some regard aggression as bullying only if it occurs as a series of incidents over a period of time. But that requirement causes much bullying to go unrecognized. A better definition recognizes that bullying need not be a series of incidents. One incident is enough, because the bully's target will likely relive the incident over a period of months or even years. So I prefer to define bullying at work as any aggressive behavior, associated with work, and primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm to others.

With that definition in mind, let me set about raising doubts about some other beliefs about workplace bullying.

Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing
I suppose there are some psychological pathologies that could cause a target to appear to be inviting the bullying. But the vast majority of targets of bullies aren't "letting" themselves be bullied. Targets are bullied because of choices the bullies make, not choices the targets make.
Toughening up isn't a solution
Targets can't Targets are bullied because of
choices the bullies make, not
choices the targets make
get the bully to stop by toughening up and showing the bully they can take it. If the bullies sense that their tactics aren't creating enough suffering, they try different tactics. And the tactics they try will be even more abusive than whatever they had been using up to that point.
Being "good" doesn't work either
Targets can't get the bullying to stop by being "good," or by being deferential to the bully. These strategies are among many in the category of appeasement. There is no possibility of appeasing bullies. What the bullies want is simple — to inflict harm so as to witness suffering that they caused. Only suffering appeases bullies.
There is no overlap between workplace bullying and tough management
Some bullies claim that their bullying is simply "tough management." Management is the art and science of coordinating people and resources to achieve a specified objective within a specified time. Tough management might be tough, but its primary goal is achieving the objective, not causing harm to others.
Tolerating bullying by a subordinate is bullying by proxy
Bullying by proxy happens when one person (A) directs, supports, or encourages another person (B) as B engages in bullying a third person (C). Some managers (As) know that their subordinates (Bs) bully others (Cs). They feel that their hands are clean because they did not directly participate in the bullying. That is a self-serving illusion. Their support or tolerance of bullying by subordinates is nothing more than bullying by proxy.
Having lots of friends is not a defense against bullying
Some people believe that they can bring an end to their being bullied by trying harder to get along with others or by building a network of friends. While this strategy might be a comfort, it will not deter the bully. Bullies are deterred only by a high probability of harm to themselves or their careers if they persist in bullying long enough to be caught at it. So having friends is helpful to targets, but it doesn't deter bullies unless those friends have the political clout necessary to severely damage the bully's career.

Last words

One of the more debilitating beliefs about bullying at work is that the Human Resources function can intervene in cases of bullying to protect the bullies' targets. That they can do so is probably true. And the people who staff that function probably would like to intervene. But in most enterprises, the primary client of the Human Resources function is the enterprise, not the people who work within the enterprise. Interventions executed by Human Resources are often designed with a primary goal of protecting the enterprise. That goal might or might not be consistent with the best interest of the bully's target. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Anticipating Consequences  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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Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

A view of Hut Point, in Anarctica, base of the Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) of Robert. F. ScottCovert Bullying
The workplace bully is a tragically familiar figure to many. Bullying is costly to organizations, and painful to everyone within them — especially targets. But the situation is worse than many realize, because much bullying is covert. Here are some of the methods of covert bullies.
A P-14 lady beetle devours a pea aphidWorkplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
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.
Three gulls excluding a fourthUnrecognized 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.
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Mobbing is a form of group bullying of an individual — the target. Power mobbing occurs when a politically powerful person orchestrates the mobbing. It's a form of bullying that's especially harmful to the target and the organization.

See also Workplace Bullying and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Old books, the standard symbol of knowledgeComing April 17: How to Answer When You Don't Know How to Answer
People engaged in knowledge work must often respond to questions that test the limits of their knowledge, or the limits of everyone's knowledge. Responding effectively to such questions advances us all. Available here and by RSS on April 17.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upAnd on April 24: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 1
Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.

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