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Workplace Bullying: Weaponizing Belonging at Work

Why belonging is central to personal and professional well-being.

Key points

  • Belonging is an evolutionary human need.
  • Workplace bullying is the purposeful revocation of a target's belonging at work.
  • Character assassination and ostracization are used to sever the target's belonging to her work community.
  • Thriving after tragedy is possible through Post Traumatic Growth.
Photo by Courtney Cook on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Courtney Cook on Unsplash

Belonging is an evolutionary longing in which connection equals protection, both for our bodies and souls (Sapolsky, 2004). Authentic connection is generative, encouraging us to grow while staying in alignment with our core values (hooks, 1996). True belonging encourages both interdependence, inviting us to lean on and support others, and independence, insisting we maintain personal freedom and autonomy.

Big Tent and Closed Circle Organizational Cultures

Organizations, like families and social networks, enculturate behavioral norms that create either a “big tent” or “closed circle” community (Suskind, 2023). Organizations that create big tent belonging encourage diverse opinions, value disagreement, provide constructive feedback, and, when things go wrong, get curious about the derailment instead of shifting into a blame-and-shame approach to problem-solving.

Most importantly, such organizations, promote psychological safety, which Edmondson (2019) defines as “a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won't be humiliated, ignored, or blamed.”

In contrast, closed circle organizational cultures utilize workplace bullying to weaponize belonging, insisting on uniformity in thought, conformity in action, and a blind eye towards abusive and unethical behavior. Closed circle communities construct strict group norms, steep hierarchies, and opaque communication systems that discourage creativity and dissenting opinions.

In closed circle cultures, when disaster strikes and whistleblowers speak up for justice — calling out unprofessional, unethical, or dangerous behavior — organizational retaliation is fierce and swift, most often resulting in the termination, voluntarily or involuntary, of the whistleblower's employment and oftentimes career (Mecili et al., 2012). Alarmingly, such actions serve as a warning shot to bystanders, making them less likely to speak up and out, thus perpetuating the toxic culture (Cialdini, 2005; Kenny, 2019).

Primary Tools for Weaponizing Belonging

At its core, workplace bullying is a covert and overt weaponization of belonging. Workplace bullies use character assassination and ostracization as their primary tools to revoke the target’s belonging to her work community and, most tragically, to herself. The abuse is carried out in a three-part play.

In the first act, the target is identified, most often because she broke toxic workplace norms by being an expert in the field, a highly productive contributor, and a creative problem solver. Once identified, the bully launches an underground rumor campaign, quietly quelling her opportunities, sullying her reputation, and crafting a case with leadership and Human Resources that she is “not a good fit.” In the second act, the target’s work is sabotaged, she is excluded from meetings and social events, and colleagues are encouraged to keep their distance or risk being targeted next. In the final stage, the character assassination is vicious and overt and she is fully ostracized from the community.

The Loss of Belonging at Work

Humans are wired for connection and dependent on others for social support, growth, and the mirroring of self-worth. Work is a primary place where we demonstrate competence, contribute, and build relationships. In the bullying cycle, one of the first weapons deployed is exclusion, slowly pushing the target outside the inner circle. Exclusion, a milder version of ostracization, may take the form of being left out of social events, pushed off of projects, and left to eat alone in the company lunchroom.

Ostracization, on the other hand, is a permanent and full-throttle blow, where the target is discharged from his duties under a false veil of wrongdoing, resulting in intense personal shame. Amplifying the harm, colleagues that the target once considered true friends turn their back, refusing to speak up against the wrongdoing and often joining in on the attacks by contributing to the false narrative, leaving the target isolated when he most needs to feel connection and support. The fallout is intense and long-lasting, resulting in symptoms that may include anxiety, sleep deprivation, depression, gastrointestinal issues, migraines, complex PTSD, and suicidal ideations (Suskind, 2023).

The Loss of Belonging to Oneself

The loss is not contained to the work community but ripples out and into the target’s sense of belonging to himself, creating a moral wounding. A moral injury, according to Shay (2014), occurs when there is a betrayal of what is right by someone in authority in a high-stakes situation. The wounding is intensified by organizational complacency, when — despite the egregious, unethical, and harmful behaviors — those in positions to right the wrong and stop the bleeding instead look the other way, fearful to risk their own reputations. Such negligence results in institutional betrayal, intensifying the harm done (Smith & Freyd, 2015).

Inside the bullying paradigm, the moral injury and institutional betrayal create what Janoff-Bulman (2010) describes as “shattered assumptions,” a disassembling that takes place when the target no longer believes the world is benevolent, events are meaningful, and he has inherent value. This loss is immeasurable and hard to define, leaving the target with what Boss (2021) describes as an ambiguous loss or “a loss that remains unclear and without official verification or immediate resolution, which may never be achieved.” This wounding leaves many targets in a repeating loop of despair as they search for the external apology and justice that are likely not forthcoming.

So what is one to do to recreate the connections that have been lost and reclaim the sense of belonging that is an inalienable human right?

Reclaiming Belonging: Post Traumatic Growth

Healing from the moral injury and institutional betrayal of workplace abuse requires the target to reconnect to a community and herself, re-establishing her belonging. As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (1992) aptly put it, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Though many targets of abuse, by no fault of their own, remain in a tailspin of terror and despair, unable to find solid ground to rebuild a foundation, some not only recover from the trauma but thrive after the tragedy. Thriving is not a result of forgetting or even forgiving the harm done, but acknowledging the pain and repositioning it inside their life’s narrative in a way that makes it manageable to carry and even a beacon of insight and hope for those that follow. As Rabbi Harold Kushner (1981) put it, “In the final analysis, the question of why bad things happen to good people translates itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”

This seismic shift is called Post Traumatic Growth or PTG, first unearthed by Tedeschi and Lawrence (1996). PTG is a type of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer, accentuating the cracks as a revenant offering, inviting the target not to cover up the tragedy but to see it as a new reconfiguration of self that is fully whole and beautiful (Kumai, 2018).

  1. The first shift occurs when the target seeks out new opportunities, realizing the current situation is unmanageable and must change. This may take the form of switching professional positions or making a change outside of work life, like creating a writing group for those who have suffered abuse. Oftentimes, in providing a service and outlet to help others, we end up saving ourselves.
  2. The second shift happens when the target rebuilds her community by deepening her current friendships outside of work or forming new connections, whether it be in the community formed in shift one or another community like a painting or hiking group.
  3. Inside these blossoming communities from shifts one and two, the third shift transpires when the target acquires a new appreciation and reverence for her inner strength, courage, and value, hence re-establishing her belonging to herself.
  4. In the fourth shift, this inward appreciation moves outward, as the target readjusts and reprioritizes her worldview, emphasizing service and relationships over profit and position.
  5. The fifth and final shift transpires once the target has reestablished her community and self-belonging, preparing her to connect to something greater than herself, whether that be through religion, spiritual practice, or nature.

In the end, as Ram Dass (2022) poetically shared, “we’re all just walking each other home.”


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