Workplace bullying: the dark side of organisational life
- Dr Linda Alker is a princpal lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School. Her areas of expertise include organisational change, leadership and workplace stress. The opinions expressed are her own. -
Workplace bullying is identified as one of the greatest sources of stress that you can put upon your employees, although organisations and managers are often slow to react to cases of bullying because bullying is not always accepted as a credible label for the kind of abuse that employees face in the workplace.
For many the term ‘bullying’ carries with it too strong an association with childhood and the difficulties victims experience at school or on the way to school. A denial that it exists then ensures that it remains a major stressor within the darker side the workplace.
The evidence speaks for itself and there is a suggestion that the increasing pressures of the recession are highlighting the problem of workplace bullying.
Research undertaken by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and public service trade union Unison, in January this year identified that one in 10 employees is likely to experience workplace bullying and harassment.
In addition, Unison reports that more than one third of workers have said they were bullied in the past six months, which is double the number a decade ago.
We know that bullying is persistent unwelcome behaviour, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, sometimes threats, exclusion, isolation, etc.
Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy and that the extent to which a person bullies is a measure of their inadequacy.
In the majority of cases ‘bullies’ do know what they are doing and either use ‘power’ to exert themselves over their victim/s (if they are in a senior management role); such as the female manager who used her power base to bully her male PA by continuously humiliating him in front of his colleagues.
This individual was a serial bully who intimidated anyone who crossed her path. Or the Police sergeant who gets a ‘kick’ out of bullying junior constables just because it makes them feel superior.
Psychologists who study organisational structures in industry and commerce report that there are two kinds of bully.
There are those who do not last long in the workplace because their behaviour is so blatantly counter-productive and they quickly find themselves a victim of their own aggression; the second type is, successful in that they are perceived to be intelligent workers who make a significant contribution to the goals and activities of the organisation.
What we see with the second type of individual is that they find themselves promoted because they have the technical expertise and knowledge that organisations thrive upon.
However, sometimes they are moving out of their comfort zone and perhaps they might find themselves in ‘charge of other people’ or ‘just working with other people’.
People are the source of the bully’s problems: they do not always react or perform with the same drive as themselves. Sometimes the other members of staff maybe just too popular or well liked within the department!
The bully may have a favourable opinion of himself or herself, which includes qualities such as arrogance, egotism, pride and a sense of superiority. Should the bully be sensitive to his or her position then anyone who threatens that position then becomes a target for the bully.
It is very difficult to rationalize why an individual sets out to bully an individual or even a group of people within a workplace setting. What we know is that unenlightened employers often go to great lengths to keep victims quiet, using threats of disciplinary action, dismissal and gagging clauses.
What bullies fear most is exposure of their inadequacy and being call publicly to account for their behaviour and its consequences. Obviously, the purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy, and people who bully to hide their inadequacy are often incompetent.