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The psychology of workplace bullying

April 10, 2024

 

Bullying is a behaviour many of us expect to leave behind in the schoolyard. We may think of it as occurring at a certain stage of adolescent development, part of our early group identification where we define ourselves by the people we want to be like versus the people who are outside the norm. 

Bullying in children often helps define certain normative roles that form ‘correct identities’ — identities which are defined by desirable and undesirable traits. When certain individuals display traits outside of those normative roles, they become the subject of ridicule.

 

The wider picture of bullying.

But the truth is bullying is much more complex and multifaceted. Bullying is often a condition of circumstances outside of the bully’s control, present in the form of abuse, anger, manipulation or threats. Passing on this form of abuse becomes a coping mechanism, one that helps release pent-up anger and helps to normalise the bullying experience.

Bullying may also be a way for an individual to shield against what they consider their own inadequacies or to relieve stress and pent-up frustrations from elsewhere in life. The bully may pick someone whom they have power over or who they can pick on without an expected repercussion. 

None of these behaviours are singular to childhood alone. Yet, as famed philosopher Alan de Botton suggests, the root of many of our behaviours as adults must be examined in terms of our development as a child. The way we express aggression or deal with anger, he suggests, is a form of ‘emotional language’, one which we learn very early on as children. Like language, these traits are learnt from observation and become harder to learn as we age — something anyone who has tried to learn a second language in adulthood will attest to. 

 

How workplace bullying manifests itself.

The most obvious form of bullying happens when there is a perceived power difference between individuals. Our job roles typically indicate who has power over us and can leave room for misuse of power. 

However, the difference in job description isn’t always the main factor. Bullying may occur when another employee at the same level tries to assert superiority based on characteristics that they think make them more ‘senior’. Perhaps they have a goal or motivation to be seen as the more senior and responsible employee, which leads them to ridicule or downplay the efforts of others. 

Interestingly, this behaviour may stem from feelings of inferiority. Often, bullies will attack based on issues they themselves see as important or detestable but aren’t a true reflection of the reality that others see.

Workplace bullying may also have nothing to do with the workplace. If the bully feels belittled, ignored, or pressured in other aspects of their life, they may see the workplace as somewhere where they can safely offload their aggression. Again, this is typically based on power dynamics — a workplace bully may feel unable to overcome hostilities elsewhere in their life. Picking a ‘target’ at work then gives them a way to vent their frustrations in a scenario that they’re sure of ‘winning’. 

This kind of behaviour may also lead to a culture of bullying between individuals or between senior employees and other staff members, where one or more groups feel attacked by another. In this scenario, bullying in one form leads to an accepted continuation of bullying as simply part of the workplace culture.

 

Examples of bullying.

Bullying has a number of telltale signs, some of which aren’t immediately obvious. They may include, but aren’t limited to;

    • A misuse of power. A bully may use their power inappropriately to shame or humiliate another employee publicly.
    • Unwarranted or invalid criticism. Bullying behaviour typically goes beyond reasonable criticism, commenting on personal appearance, ability, sexuality, gender, race, disability, etc. These may lead a bully to treat an employee differently from the rest of the team.
    • Undue blame. A bully may blame an employee without factual justification simply because they’re an easy target.
    • Excessive monitoring. This behaviour comes under misuse of power, where a bully feels the right to breach an employee’s privacy outside of standard work practices.
    • Exclusion or social isolation. Bullying may rely on making the employee feel isolated or excluded from others, typically when one person is bullied more than another.
  • Shouting, swearing or physical assault.  

 

Standing up to bullying.

Whatever the form or reason, bullying is not an acceptable practice. However, it can be common enough in emotionally charged environments. In many ways, workplaces are similar to schools — employees are judged on their ability to perform and may feel discouraged or even angered by the response of other team members. Bosses can feel attacked or unappreciated by employees, left helpless when they refuse to perform, and vice versa. 

It’s important to understand that, as any member of the workplace, you have the right to an emotionally safe and healthy environment in which to work.

 

Dealing with workplace bullying.

In many individual cases, therapy or counselling is recommended to address the real issue. This applies to both the bully and the perpetrator of the bullying. Therapy can help uncover the reasons why we feel unable to deal with aggression or how we can best prepare a defence against attacks on us as individuals.

Yet, it’s important that the root of bullying is stemmed in the office. Bullying creates an unhealthy, negative work environment. It may lead to people avoiding coming to work, turning down responsibilities, or deliberately removing themselves from any confrontation. As a result, the whole office suffers. Employees may feel unable to voice their concerns or may not even realise that they can do so. 

Avoiding the problem is never a solution. In these cases, having someone available to talk to and who can recognise the signs of bullying, either in the bully or recipient, is key to defusing workplace tension.

Typically, these people should be good problem solvers, someone that others can turn to and feel safe confiding in.

 

Finding your workplace support person.

The good news is that these are all key skill sets that can be learned, whether identifying or responding to a bullying situation. Standard Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace teaches participants to recognise signs of bullying and approach others in order to defuse the conflict. The course also teaches how to refer people to additional support networks, which can benefit both parties in a bullying incident. 

If you’d like to learn more or book your Standard Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace course, head here. For more immediate help, you can call Beyond Blue, an Australian helpline for those going through depression, anxiety or other mental health-related problems, at 1300 22 4636.

 

Sources:

  • “Alain de Botton on A THERAPEUTIC JOURNEY” on The School of Life (YouTube Channel). Date Published: November, 2023. Site Link: https://tinyurl.com/4wjfjb9n
  • Praslova, Ludmila N.m Carucci, Ron, Stokes, Caroline. “How Bullying Manifests at Work — and How to Stop It” on Harvard Business Review. Date Published: 4th November, 2022. Site Link: https://tinyurl.com/4y2m9nnj
  • “Workplace Bullying” on University of Louisiana Education. Date Accessed: 7th March, 2024. Site Link: https://tinyurl.com/yweuv7rz
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