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Workplace Bullying: Types, Intervention, Prevention

Workplace bullying requires intervention. Better yet, focus on prevention.

Key points

  • Adult bullying in the workplace includes a wide range of behaviors, including emotional abuse that can be hard to detect.
  • Organizations are systems, and bullying prevention mechanisms should be built into these systems.
  • Proactively instituting prevention policies is more effective than a reactive approach.
  • Anti-bullying mechanisms are built on the foundation of organizational justice.
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Would you tell people to toughen up and keep going when there has been a toxic chemical spill in a factory? Or would you distribute protective equipment, evacuate employees, and undertake a major clean-up?

If we would not put people's physical health in danger, why do we tell targets of workplace bullying to "just be resilient?" There may not be a visible danger like in a toxic spill, but the adverse long-term effects of bullying on mental and physical health are well-documented and include sleep and concentration difficulties, fear, anxiety, and depression. Bullying also leads to lowered self-confidence, self-worth, guilt, shame, worthlessness, and self-contempt. Target-blaming, aka the "toughen up" advice, does not help with any of that. Moreover, the damage from bullying leads to long-term psychological as well as cardiovascular and metabolic damage. It harms not only its targets, but also witnesses.

Still, many organizations do nothing. Why?

In our in-depth article on bullying, Ron Carucci, Caroline Stokes, and I provide a visual taxonomy of bullying behaviors, and delve into the many reasons why it is often allowed to continue. Unfortunately, one reason is that organizations and managers do not address bullying, deny that it is occurring, and place the burden of anti-bullying work on traumatized employees.

Do managers know bullying when they see it?

In part, the lack of attention may occur because some bullying behaviors may not even be recognized as such. Many people think of bullying as physically pushing or hitting someone, playground style. However, adult bullying in the workplace rarely looks like this. It includes a wide range of behaviors, including emotional abuse that can be hard to detect. The kind of workplace bullying that comes closest to the playground bully is the "Screamer" — an ill-tempered, yelling, fist-banging overt bully. But beware also of the "Schemer" — the covert, Machiavellian bully who quietly plots, gaslights, and makes up lies to get their way.

According to education and diversity leadership expert Aviva Legatt, the "quiet" side of bullying is often observed in large bureaucracies and high-stress professions with a legacy of bullying, such as nursing. "Horizontal hostility" or "lateral violence" in nursing often take the form of backstabbing or exclusion.

Some may say that "this is how the workplace is." But just because something is common does not mean it should be. Just because toxic behavior has been tolerated does not mean it should continue to be tolerated.

Do you know what to do?

Bullying is often addressed ineffectively. In many cases, the burden is simply placed on targets. But the "resilience" advice or "you fight them" advice ignores pre-existing differences in mental and physical health and other coping resources, such as access to support networks, and psychological or legal help. Leaving the fight to the target burdens those already most burdened; it's akin to factory managers telling workers to deal with a toxic leak with no protection or help.

But another extreme — zero-tolerance policies targeting individuals — also does not work. In some cases, bullies use these policies against targets when targets finally snap. In other cases, bullying behavior can be corrected with education and compassion, and it is important to offer people an opportunity to improve, as long as this does not come at the cost of continued harm to the target. While the attitude of "the bully had a tough life so others have to deal with it" will perpetuate a bullying cycle, so will unnecessary harshness. Protecting one person does not necessarily have to mean punishing another. Sometimes, distance and help can solve the problem.

Ultimately, however, dealing with workplace bullying reactively is less effective than proactively instituting prevention policies.

Prevention, prevention, prevention.

Organizations are systems, and bullying prevention mechanisms should be built into these systems. Removing opportunities and rewards for bullying can significantly reduce its occurrence. The focus on prevention elsewhere likely explains why 30% of the workforce in the U.S. report being bullied at work, while in Germany, for example, it's 17%.

Effective organizational systems of bullying prevention are built on the same principles as inclusive and psychologically healthy workplaces. Anti-bullying mechanisms are built on the foundation of organizational justice, transparency, focusing on outcomes, and using valid instruments in decision-making. Bullying might have been a too-common occurrence in the workplace, but it does not mean it should remain so.

This post also appeared in the Best Work for Your Brain newsletter.

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