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Understanding Workplace Bullying Tactics and Dynamics

May 10, 2018

workplace bullying tactics and dynamics

Bullying has unfortunately become part of the workplace culture and is tolerated by many institutions throughout the world. The survey conducted by the American Workplace Bullying Institute in 2017 shows that 19% of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work; another 19% have witnessed it; 69% are aware that workplace bullying happens. To get to grips with this problem we need to be able to recognize bullying tactics and understand its dynamics.

Workplace bullying is aggressive or unreasonable behaviour of individuals and groups against another individual in the workplace. Bullying presents a problem not only for the victim but also for the organization, because it can affect employee productivity, cause high turnover rates or expose a company to lawsuits.

Victims of bullying are often imagined as passive, dependent and pessimistic personalities. Nothing could be further from the truth; they are proactive and self-assured personalities. Victims of bullying are dedicated workers and loyal to their employer, in other words – they are the employees who have a lot to offer to their organizations.

Bullies, on the other hand, suffer from feelings of inadequacy. This feeling forces them to wage a bullying campaign in order to portray the target as incompetent. They do it by exhibiting aggression towards their co-workers. They insult them, yell at them, spread gossip, invent false accusations, deny them information and resources or sabotage their projects, with one goal in mind – to gain control over them or to force them to resign.

The classification of bullying tactics is given by Heinz Leyman, a pioneer researcher in the workplace bullying and mobbing, who describes them as attacks on different aspects of victim’s personality:

  • Attack on the right to self-expression, and generally speaking, hostile communication with the victim. In this type of bullying, victims are interrupted when speaking and denied the opportunity to express themselves. They are yelled at or subjected to constant criticism of their work or personal life. They could even experience verbal and written threats.

  • Attacks on one’s social relations, in which case all communication between the victim and co-workers is cut off. Victim is placed in a work space that is isolated from the others and becomes ostracized.

  • Attacks on reputation imply circulation of gossips and unfounded rumours about the victim. The victim is ridiculed, called demeaning names and sometimes treated as if mentally ill.

  • Attacks on the quality of one’s professional situation are usually manifested by taking away assignments. Victims can also be forced to do menial jobs that affect their self-esteem or they can be given impossible assignments with unreasonable deadlines so that they can be criticized if they fail.

    Related: How to Survive Toxic Leadership

These types of attacks never happen in isolation, bullying is usually manifested as combination of those attacks or it can develop into a more serious subset of workplace bullying, or a separate type of workplace aggression, i.e., mobbing.

In mobbing, a group turns against an individual. As in the case of bullying, this individual is usually a superior employee. Mobbing entails a significant element of clannishness and some level of management involvement. This type of bullying is not triggered so much by the feeling of inadequacy of the bully, but by some difference found in the victim. This difference can be perceived as difference in appearance, qualifications, superior work ethics, and difference in political views or attitudes.

For instance, the employee may refuse to participate in unethical behaviour that is tolerated by workplace culture or the victim may persist in applying the rules of the organization that the other members have long since abandoned. This difference in behaviour between the victim and the rest of the group creates a divide between them. Once this perception of divide settles in, all it takes is a critical incident to set the mobbing dynamic in motion.

According to Leyman, mobbing usually occurs in five phases:

  • In phase one, mobbing is prompted by a critical event.

  • In phase two, mobbers initiate aggression, which is at first delivered in small doses, making it unreasonable for the victim to retaliate. Instead the victim has to absorb the aggression. Meanwhile, mobbers start spreading rumours constructing the victim as “the other” and an unworthy member of the team.

  • In phase three, the attacks go on until the victim cannot stand it anymore and decides to lodge a complaint with the management. In some cases, management could be complicit in some degree or turn a blind eye on mobbing, so this action brings no results. 

  • In phase four, the victim earns a label of being difficult or mentally ill. Now, any complaints that the victim might present loose legitimacy. The mobbers are given free rein to continue delivering assaults.

  • Phase five is expulsion. This phase can end in different ways – the victim can quit his/her job, be fired, suffer a nervous breakdown or even act out. Instead of finding resolution to the conflict, the outcome is that the employee is labelled as a “disgruntled employee” and the whole blame is laid on the victim.

Being more pervasive and clandestine, therefore more protracted, mobbing has greater consequences for the victim. In the worst case scenario, the victim can become physically or mentally ill, which can make victim’s rehabilitation and re-entry into the workforce extremely difficult.

Bearing in mind the consequences of bullying and mobbing, both for the organization and the victim, and the pervasiveness of this problem, organizations must understand the tactics and dynamics of bullying in order to recognize them in action. They also must take a close and critical look at their workplace culture, because bullying and mobbing most often happen in workplaces that are non-collaborative and, consequently, abusive at some level. To avoid the persistence of bullying, organizations can foster a positive culture by understanding this phenomenon and learning to detect and stop bullying at its earliest stage. 

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Guest Blogger, PeopleHR Guest Blogger, PeopleHR