What Factors within Organizations and Individuals Might Create the Conditions for Bullying?

Bullying in the Workplace

Sara, our character in the last blog, experienced bullying related to a new workplace context with a new supervisor. Inherent to her struggle with a certain supervisor is the environment within which the bullying took place. Research continues to demonstrate that instances of bullying may be influenced by intrapersonal, interpersonal and systemic contexts.

Individuals and the Processes Used for Addressing Bullying

In the book: Workplace Bullying: Symptoms and Solutions (2012), it is stated that victims and perpetrators inhabit worlds that are quite possibly incompatible, where little shared meaning takes place.

What might a person do when bullying is present? A worker, like Sara, may use a more assertive strategy to begin with. If the bullying progresses, the coping strategies become more passive in nature. As the conflict escalates the model below illustrates four main coping strategies that those being bullied may employ:

  1. Voice – A person tries to improve the situation by active and constructive problem-solving.
  2. Loyalty – The person passively supports the organization with the hope of problem-solving.
  3. Neglect – An individual begins to show a reduction of commitment to the organization.
  4. Exit – Eventually the individual gives up and quits the organization and moves on.

Other strategies may be used, or an individual might move through strategies 1, 2 and 3 many times before they quit the company and “exit”. Most people begin with collaborative and integrative attempts that show concern for their own and others’ interests but often end with withdrawal and avoidance of the conflict as the bullying progresses. Sara, for example, left her position at the company after trying to address it.

What Are the Possible Triggers and Pressures That Might Bring Bullying to Bear in a Workplace?

Critical to understanding and limiting harm is understanding the motives and intent of those who are bullying. This is an area where continued research is needed. (Workplace Bullying: Signs and Symptoms, Liefooghe & Roongrerngsuke, 2012)

Bullying research has largely focused on victimization, understandably, rather than the motivation of the bullying. Zapf and Einarsen (2003), identify three potential motives for bullying:

  1. To protect self-esteem;
  2. To compensate for lack of social skills (in particular – emotional control)
  3. Micro-political behaviours (to ensure that one’s own career goals are met, possibly at the cost of others) (Workplace Bullying: Signs and Symptoms, Liefooghe & Roongrerngsuke, 2012)

Levels of awareness of being a bully vary and an individual may have little, or no, awareness of how they are perceived by others. For example, being assertive to the point of being aggressive, can be a cultural norm in some places. In addition, for new leaders, bullying may result from testing out unfamiliar techniques in their role. The outcome of this testing out may be lost upon a new leader who is trying to establish their positional authority and is unaware of the impact upon those around them until it is too late.

What are the Possible Antecedents Within Organizational Environments?

We are seeing more and more, that in workplaces and in schools, bullying is a severe social stressor. The role of organizational structure and design can both facilitate bullying and could impact institutionalized bullying (Workplace Bullying: Signs and Symptoms, Liefooghe & Roongrerngsuke, 2012).

Conflict is a natural occurrence in nature and in human systems. With this in mind, there are various ways to handle conflict. Many conflict assessment instruments, like the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, can be used to understand conflict, grow conflict literacy and find one’s own conflict handling tendencies. If a particular conflict is understood and handled well, there can be energy and growth for the individuals involved and for the organizational initiatives as well.

If a conflict is not resolved, or if factors in an environment breed unhealthy conflict, conflict can escalate.

Glasl’s Conflict Escalation Model can help us to understand the level of the conflict and how it may relate to bullying behaviours. It is a model that outlines the stages of progression that an escalating conflict often takes. This model begins when a conflict is already well developed. The nine stages are:

Stage One: Hardening – Here we have selective attention and a focus on positions. There is seen to be one way, we lose track of the why, and focus on the what, as well as losing sight of options and not being curious.

Stage Two: Debates and Polemics – Differences become disputes.

Stage Three: Actions Not Words – Here is where communication breaks down and parties shift from conversation to action. It is often here, that the tide turns and we stop communicating.

If we can interrupt the conflict at this stage we may still have a chance for win – win solutions. If we don’t we get into a win – lose position.

Stage Four: Images and Coalitions – At this point, the conflict becomes about victory and all or nothing thinking takes over more and more as the escalation deepens.

Stage Five: Loss of Face – The conflict becomes about being right. Blaming and possibly harming others means I get to be the victor and the other person is degraded.

Stage Six: Strategies of threats – There are strategies and threats that come to bear at this stage. Ultimatums are seen as necessary to prevent violence. Undermining means I will try to get my way. I may form tribes that are on my side and I may threaten action. Triangulation often comes into play here as the ‘tribe’ is chosen to strengthen my position.

At this point the conflict becomes a lose – lose proposition.

Stage Seven: Limited Destructive Blows – The other party is the enemy and it becomes about demeaning the other person.

Stage Eight: Fragmentation of the Enemy – Attacks are intended to destroy reputation. There may be confrontation, gossip and bitter action. I may want the other person to pay the price for their wrongdoing.

Stage Nine: Together into the Abyss – At this stage, the feeling is that the enemy must be denigrated. Here I may descend into a place of mutual destruction where there could be a court application, for example, where it may become impossible for anyone to win. Read more

When bullying is involved, the conflict has often escalated to Stage Six, the stage where strategies that heighten my position, and threaten and weaken yours, begin. This is a place where communication has severely broken down and there is no longer a win – win possibility.

What might be at play when conflicts escalate higher and higher on the ladder of the nine stages of Glasl?

Researchers are now also looking to the organizational context and environment, as well as the ability to address conflict within the individuals involved, “It can no longer be ignored that in schools and workplaces that the ‘way we do things around here’ in terms of organizing workflows, how we teach/manage and how work (be it teaching or specific work tasks) is organized, has a significant effect on bullying incidences.” (Workplace Bullying: Signs and Symptoms, Liefooghe & Roongrerngsuke, 2012).

This is linked to how organizational practices, such as performance appraisals, are handled, whether systems of surveillance prescribed by the organization are overly didactic, and how organizational disputes are resolved (Workplace Bullying: Signs and Symptoms, Liefooghe & Roongrerngsuke, 2012).

“Lack of autonomy due to strict procedural adherence and direct control mechanisms produces a context where employees feel powerless, systematically abused over a long period of time” (Workplace Bullying: Signs and Symptoms, Liefooghe & Roongrerngsuke, 2012). Bullying, in this type of organizational environment, may be common and a perpetrator may not be easily identified.

Viewing bullying as a situational and systemic problem based on environmental factors as well as one that is focused on an individual level is becoming more accepted. (Workplace Bullying: Signs and Symptoms, Liefooghe & Roongrerngsuke, 2012)

At times, the discipline of psychology (where most of the work on bullying is located) has a tendency to be overly preoccupied with the analysis of variables located at an individual level. Context, and in particular, the role and function of the principles of organizing and controlling, are often overlooked. It is time to fundamentally redress this balance if we genuinely seek to understand the high bullying incidences reported in both schools and workplaces. (Workplace Bullying: Signs and Symptoms, Liefooghe & Roongrerngsuke, 2012)

If we invite thinkers and sociologists to join the conversation do we gain a better understanding? “The overarching theme of the novel, Lord of the Flies, is the conflict between the impulse towards [cruelty] and the rules of civilization which are designed to contain and minimize it. Throughout the novel, the conflict is dramatized by the clash between Ralph and Jack, who respectively represent civilization and savagery. The differing ideologies are expressed by each boy’s distinct attitudes towards authority.” Ross, Jeremy. A. Kimball, December 8, 2006, and A. Kissel, ed. “Lord of the Flies Themes”. GradeSaver, 18 August 2007 Web. 8 February 2018.

Such impulses may also be reflected in low levels of worker autonomy (Einarsen, 1994) and autocratic leadership. These are cited as factors in an organizational environment that can heighten the context for increased bullying behavior.

Implications for practice, and support interventions in a workplace setting, are key here. These may include such things as: clearer rules, guidelines and specific leadership training as well as the redesigning of jobs that create an environment where shared meaning is created. (see also Liefooghe & Olafson, 1999).

What happens when you encounter this as a leader? As a coach? What is triggered in you? How do you reflect on it? How do you serve clients when this happens?

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