Tyrants and Workplace Bullying

Conceptualizations of Workplace Bullying

For most people, being bullied is a “normal” part of the working day. Bullying is a widespread phenomenon in numerous countries. Studies suggest that as much as 10 percent of the workforce is bullied.

Bullying can be defined as behavior that, on more than one occasion, is offensive, abusive, malicious, insulting or intimating; unjustified criticism on more than one occasion; punishment imposed without reasonable justification; and changes in the duties or responsibilities of the employee to the employee’s detriment without reasonable justification (Lee, 2000, p. 596).

Influenced by case-law definitions in racial and sexual harassment, definitions of bullying share three elements:

  1. its effect on the recipient;
  2. a negative effect on the victim; and
  3. bullying behavior must be persistent and generally extend beyond six months (Quine, 1999).

Workplace bullying is in the middle of a continuum: at one end is workplace homicide; physical violence at the next level; and in the middle, sexual harassment and bullying (Crawford, 1997).

Bullying may incorporate incivility (breaches of etiquette), or forms of aggression (degradation), which can escalate into a conflict spiral and is sometimes underwritten by judgments of “appropriate” conduct and pressure to conform to gender-appropriate norms (Lee, 2002).

The intention of perpetrators is to engage in concealed acts which cause humiliation, offence and distress. (Lee & Brotheridge, 2006). For instance, Lee (2000: 604; original emphasis) described the following incident:

My supervisor got hold of me by my overalls. He pushed me against the workbench and verbally threatened me for no known reason. This attack took place when there was nobody else about. (“George”, electrician)

The potential danger to victims includes effects on their professional status, personal standing, being isolated, suffering overwork and being destabilized in the organization (Rayner & Hoel, 1997). “Mobbing” (or “shikato”), where groups of peers bully one person, has also been identified as common in schools and at work in Japan and Scandinavia but less so in the UK (Einarsen, 1999; Leyman, 1992).

Bullying is a symptom of organizational dysfunction and is evidence of “internal organizational conflicts which have bubbled to the surface … the conflict is either seeping to the surface or suddenly spills out” (Crawford, 1997: 221).

In general, bullying has been conceptualized as a combination of both individual and environmental factors. A general model of bullying has been provided by Ashforth’s model of “petty tyranny” (1994) Opens in new window.

This consists of individual predispositions (beliefs about the self, organization and subordinates, and preferences for action) interacting with situational facilitators, leading to petty tyranny (belittling subordinates, lack of consideration, discouraging initiative), and having effects on subordinates such as high frustration, low self-esteem etc.

Behavior may trigger a vicious circle. However, bullying has also been analyzed from three different levels:

  • the individual or person-oriented level,
  • the dyadic or group level, and
  • the organizational level.

These factors are considered in the concluding section of this literature. The need to recognize factors from all angles has been acknowledged by a number of researchers (Einarsen, 2000; Einarsen et al., 2003; Zapf, 1999).

Bullies and the Effects of Bullying

Workplace bullies play out their “foul game” in organizations, engaging in punishment, self-aggrandizement and generally belittling subordinates (Ashforth, 1994). Bullies are especially prevalent in prisons, schools, young offenders’ institutions and the armed forces.

Bullies (a type of tyrant) are often “leaders”, and have devastating effects on their subordinates, causing tension, stress, helplessness, and work alienation, as well as having more general effects on departmental or unit performance (Podsakoff & Schriesheim, 1985).

It’s difficult to put a cost on the effects of bullying to organizations because incidence is under-reported. For instance, some employees might not prefer to “label” themselves a bullied by seeking organizational or professional assistance (Salin, 2001). However, given the consequences for individuals by way of stress, absenteeism, turnover, reduced productivity and other inefficiencies resulting from organizational dysfunction, the real cost must be staggering.

Prevalence of Workplace Bullying

Bullying has commonly been associated with school playgrounds (Batch & Knoff, 1994). However, it was identified in Scandinavia as an adult issue in the 1980s, and, in the UK, in the 1990s.

Workplace bullying is more common than previously thought. Of a sample of 7986, representing 14 different Norwegian surveys of a broad array of organizations and professions, as much as 8.6 percent had been bullied at work in the recent past (Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996).

Bullying was most prevalent in large, male-dominated organizations, and older workers were victimized more than younger workers. Similar proportions (10.1%) have been reported by Vartia (1996), using Finnish municipal employees as participants.

However, Quine (1999) found bullying more prevalent among health workers, with more than one-third of a sample of 1100 suffering bullying in the past year. These employees also reported low job satisfaction Opens in new window and high levels of job-induced stress. Even greater numbers were found by Leymann (1996), with roughly half of 2400 Swedish workers experiencing bullying.

Similar numbers have been reported in research at Staffordshine University Business School, where Rayner (1997) found that 53% of staff had experienced workplace bullying and 78% had witnessed bullying of others.

Rayner (1997) also found that 53% of 1137 university students reported that had been bullied during their working lives. Most people were bullied in groups, where bullying was more prolonged than in individual bullying, and were bullied immediately upon changing their jobs, accounting for 82% of bullying onset.

Other scenarios where bullying occurred was where an individual acquired a new manager. Women were bullied as much by men and women, but men were rarely bullied by woman. Being bullied was associated with low use of support services, and leaving the job.

Job seniority does not provide immunity against bullying. Business professionals (manager and experts) also experience bullying. Salin (2001) found that 8.8% of 377 respondent professionals (managers and experts) reported being bullied occasionally and 1.6% weekly.

Given the high-pressure, competitive nature of professional jobs, it was thought that this type of sample might be subjected to a different type of bullying.

Compared to a British study (Hoel & Cooper, 2000) of professionals, Salin (2001) found that negative acts such as being given tasks with impossible targets or deadlines, having one’s opinions and views ignored, and being given work clearly below one’s level of competence were reported considerably more often.

Particular industries and occupations where performance includes exacting tasks performed under time pressure are also situations where it is more likely that bullying will occur (Hillier, 1995).

Implicating Factors

I.     Characteristics of the Victim and the Bully

  1. The Victim

Victims of bullying feel demoralization and defeat:

My own advice to anyone facing (bullying) is to resign straight away if you can and not to fight. … I have made a promise to myself that if I am faced with the same situation again I will leave straight away, after all life is too short. (Crawford, 1997: 224)

The extent to which the personality of the victim is a contributing factor in bullying has been heavily debated. Early researchers (e.g. Leymann, 1996) were strongly opposed to the notion that victim personality might be a cause of bullying. However, many studies today suggest that victim personality cannot be ignored.

Aquino et al. (1999) hypothesized that two groups of employees were particularly at risk of becoming victimized at work: the submissive employee, and the proactive employee. Typical submissive victim characteristics include:

  • anxiety
  • low social competence,
  • low self-esteem and
  • low self-determination (Aquino et al. 1999).

Other victim characteristics found to be associated with bullying include:

  • a high level of social anxiety,
  • increased levels of sensitivity,
  • anger and suspiciousness,
  • neuroticism,
  • disability,
  • physical weakness,
  • lack of friends, and
  • introversion.

One point of debate is whether, and to what extent, these characteristics should be considered causes of bullying or whether they are the end-product or result of the bullying process.

While it could be claimed that the personality of the victim may provoke aggression in others, Leymann (1996) contends that victim characteristics need to be understood as a normal response to an abnormal situation.

Specifically, observations of personality must not be seen as the cause, but instead the consequence of bullying (Leymann and Gustafsson, 1996).

Certainly, individuals who possess a negative perception of life have been shown to be more vulnerable to workplace bullying.

According to Watson and Clark (1984), persons with high negative affect are prone to focus on the negative aspects of their personal environment, are less happy with their lives, and may project a meek demeanor.

Similarly, Coyne et al. (2003) and Jockin et al. (2001) also claim that a predisposition to negativity lends itself to a victim’s perception — that once bullied, they will always be bullied.

These claims are supported by the work of Einarsen and Skogstad (1996), who found victims with a long history of victimization to be attacked more frequently than those with a shorter victimization history.

Demographic characteristics may also explain why certain employees are more likely to be targets of bullying. In particular, being different or belonging to a minority appears to be a risk factor.

For example, both members of non-white ethnic groups (Hoel & Cooper, 2000) and employees with disabilities (Leymann, 1992) show higher victimization rates. All of these characteristics leave the potential victim vulnerable and open for the more aggressive personality of the bully (Aquino & Byron, 2002).

  1. The Bully

Researchers have also examined the characteristics of a typical perpetrator, i.e. the bully. One popular school of thought places emphasis on the genetic and childhood experiences that lead to workplace bullying.

Raine et al. (1994) describe biological causes of aggressive bullying behavior in the workplace.

Some support has been shown for the assertion that the adult bully learned this behavior in childhood, is unable to break the psychological cycle as s/he grows into adulthood, and thus mimics the destructive behavior either at home or in the workplace (Robinson & O’Leary-Kelly, 1998).

Similarly, other research has given rise to the idea of a cycle of violence (Tattum & Tattum, 1996; Randal, 1997), suggesting that bullying behavior, cultivated in childhood and adolescence, continues to express and manifest itself in a variety of situations throughout life (Randall, 1997).

Research has identified a lack of social competency to be a common trait of perpetrators. For example, Zapf and Einarsen (2003) argued that both a lack of emotional control and thoughtfulness could be contributing to abusive behavior.

Sheehan and Jordan (2003) also argued that an inability to take responsibility for the expression and control of emotions may contribute to bullying. Moreover, they suggested bounded emotionality and personal mastery training were needed to curtail bullying behavior.

II.     Dyadic and Group-Level Influences

On the dyadic level, it is emphasized that bullying consists of interactions between a victim and a perpetrator(s). This level of analysis emphasizes a dynamic process between the victim and the perpetrator(s), with the victim construed as an active agent in the bullying process (Einarsen et al., 2003).

Research distinguishes between two forms of bullying: predatory and dispute-related bullying.

  • Predatory bullying refers to those situations ‘where the victim personally had done nothing provocative that may reasonably justify the behavior of the bully’ (Einarsen, 1999:22).

    Predatory bullying is often identified as a public manifestation of power on the part of the perpetrator, or because the victim is part of an outgroup, i.e. an underrepresented sex or ethnic group.
  • Dispute-related bullying, on the other hand, refers to those incidents of bullying that are connected with disagreement over work-related conflicts or violation of social norms. If conflicts remain unresolved, bullying behavior may escalate and become increasingly personal.

Power differences should also be considered when analyzing bullying on the dyadic level, as they are an inherent factor in bullying conflicts (Vartia, 1996).

Differences in power are not necessarily due to the formal position of victim and perpetrators, but may be based on other situational and contextual characteristics (Cleveland & Kerst, 1993). Moreover, personality characteristics may also play a role in the development of such power imbalances between victim and perpetrator.

III.     Organizational-Level Influences

The recent history of organizations shows environments that are fertile grounds for bullies to prosper. From the 1990s on, large organizations experienced vast changes which included:

  • restructures,
  • downsizing,
  • relocations,
  • technological innovations and
  • a shift to more formal systems of appraisal to allow for accurate statistics, observance and monitoring of employee performance (Langan-Fox et al., 1998).

As a consequence, work conditions in large organizations are often fraught with uncertainties — prime environments that foster suspicion, competition, conflict and unsettling feelings about the future, resulting in an organizational environment that is tense and stress-filled.

Organizations with rigid hierarchical structures are more likely to have a culture where bullying can flourish, and where the power differential is handled without impunity.

This appears to be the case especially in total institutions, such as the army or paramilitary setting, such as the fire service (Archer, 1999). Leymann (1992) took a strong position in stating that work conditions alone are the primary cause of bullying.

Similarly, Vartia (1996) found that victims and observers of bullying felt that workplace deficiencies such as:

  • poor information flow,
  • settling of conflicts and
  • insufficient empowerment all contributed to bullying.

Of a total of 2215 individuals in a labor union and employer’s federation, Einarsen et al. (1994a) found that bullying was significantly correlated with measures of the work environment, including:

  • leadership,
  • work control,
  • workload,
  • social climate and
  • role conflict.

This study showed that it was not only the victim who suffered from an ill-conditioned work environment, but also observers of bullying.

The Phases of Bullying

Empirical studies indicate that bullying is not an either–or phenomenon, but rather a gradually evolving process. Einarsen and Skogstad (1996) found that victims of long-lasting bullying were bullied with highest intensity, indicating that bullying takes the form of an escalating process:

Initially victims are attacked occasionally, with conflict escalating and increasing after some time, and then victims are attacked on a weekly basis.

Models have been proposed to account for the escalation of conflict, such as that by Bjorkqvist (1992), which suggests a three-phase model of bullying:

  1. In the first phase indirect methods are used such as spreading rumors. These initial strategies are indirect, discreet, and aimed at degrading the victim.
  2. The second phase is more direct, where the person is isolated or humiliated in public (e.g. becomes the butt of jokes), thereby justifying the behavior of the bully.
  3. The third phase involves extreme aggression and power against the victim, for instance accusing them of being psychologically ill. Blackmail may also be used.

Outcomes of Bullying

Bullying leads to stress, Lee (2000: 603) describes Sarah’s experience with her new line manager:

I had started having these terrible nightmares, I was dreaming about killing him, every time I put my head on the pillow I was killing him. I began to think I was going mad. I thought, I’m losing my marbles.

Lee and Brotheridge (2006) found that among Canadian workers from the public service, a school hospital and mine, self-doubt was an important variable in mediating the relationship between being bullied by others and burnout. Bullying affects self-confidence and a person’s well-being:

I was working as a salesman in a Menswear shop in Worthing and the manager made my life a living hell from my first day. So much so that I stormed out after having been in the job for 10 weeks! After this experience I began to feel a great loss of confidence and for a long time was unemployed. (Crawford, 1997: 221).

Coping with bullying-induced stress causes a depletion of emotional resources and the development of psychosomatic stress symptoms which include anxiety Opens in new window and depression Opens in new window.

In general, there is concrete evidence to indicate that individuals who are bullied or mobbed are more likely to experience depression; more psychosomatic and depressive symptoms than non-bullied persons; and higher levels of depression, anxiety, aggression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Opens in new window.

Severe degrees of PTSD have been shown to have effects comparable to PTSD in war or prison-camp experiences and include problems related to cognition (memory disturbances), psychosomatic stress symptoms (nightmares), autonomic nervous system (heart palpitations), muscular tension (bachache) and sleep problems.

Organizational repercussions of bullying have also been well documented, with bullying resulting in increased absenteeism and higher turnover of personnel, reduced commitment and productivity, and negative publicity (e.g. Ashforth, 1997).

Given the severity and extent of problems associated with workplace bullying, prevention is a key. People who are bullied have final reactions which include two destructive types, either through reducing commitment to the organization, or leaving permanently (Niedl, 1996). Either way, systems for preventing mobbing need to be instituted, with continued monitoring to prevent recurrences.

Prevention of Workplace Bullying

Bullying appears to be a dynamic, interactive process with a multiplicity of causes. It is therefore unlikely that all forms of bullying will be completely eliminated in the workplace.

In the words of Randall (1997: 107), “the motivations for bullying are too complex, numerous and diverse for any organization to be completely free of such behavior”. None the less, it is possible for an employer to significantly reduce the likelihood of this behavior occurring and to detect bullying at a much earlier stage.

Leymann (1993) proposed specific features of organizations that contribute to bullying behavior:

  • deficiencies in work design,
  • leadership behavior,
  • the socially exposed position of the victim/s, and
  • low moral in the department are possibilities.

Resch and Schubinski (1996) examined each of these causes as targets for organizational change.

  1. First, they argue that well-designed jobs with low strain, high job control and opportunities for decision making reduce the possibility of stress and scapegoating.
  2. Second, a new informed leadership style needs to permeate from the top down, with new leadership learned on the job and management training evaluated through regular appraisals by employees.
  3. Third, grievance rules must be implemented that protect the individual even if s/he opposes the viewpoint of a group.
  4. Fourth, there needs to be a mutual understanding of acceptable behavior of co-workers and of fairness or moral standard.

In addition, the authors recommend a number of measures that need to be agreed upon that apply in the early, middle and late phases of the mobbing conflict.

Resch and Schubinski (1996: 296) claim that it takes “a spectacular case to motivate the company to deal with a known but unacknowledged problem. Only if a worker dies from the consequence of alcohol abuse or a fatal accident happens does the company agree to confront the problem.”

Prevention measures need to be applied before mobbing becomes an issue.

  • There is an early phase when the conflict is still recognizable;
  • a middle phase where the participants no longer perceive a conflict but rather a problem with us and the person, and
  • a late phase when group or department borders are crossed and official measures are implemented, for instance warnings or transfers.

Resch and Schubinski (1996) argue that there are probably two motivations for organizations to confront the problem of mobbing: first, public opinion against the company when a mobbing case becomes public and second, the pressure of the social service agency or trade union representatives.

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