When bullies rule

Laura C. Dzurec | 03/08/2017

Rules for spotting and addressing workplace bullying.

Image depicting bullying in healthcare

As odd as it may seem, self-doubt is a virtue. When it is recognized and managed, self-doubt can motivate planning, facilitate humility, stimulate thinking, and serve to encourage others. Self-doubt, that is, diminished confidence in oneself and one’s abilities, “must always precede self-confidence” (Gaddis, 2004, p. 8). Unfortunately, in situations of workplace bullying—whether that bullying occurs in the workplace, in social settings, in political arenas, or in the classroom—the self-doubt can, and typically does, overtake rational thought. In such situations, self-doubt serves not as a virtue, but as a handicap, reinforcing what the victimized believe about themselves: “You are not good enough” (D’Cruz & Noronha, 2010, p. 112).

Laura Dzurec“You are not good enough” is exactly the message bullies hope to convey as they confront their targets. Working to the bully’s advantage are realities of history and physiology that act, simultaneously and behind the scenes, to fortify his or her skill in aggression and the victim’s propensity to crumple socially.

To effectively address the complex forces that drive bullying victimization, administrators need to be proactive. Their behind-the-scenes work involves initiating processes that, ultimately, clarify and support system-wide efforts to manage and reduce bullying. While the challenges of achieving that objective may seem daunting, it’s important to remember that “rules make provisions for everything, especially on occasions when one doesn’t know what to do” (Zafón, 2004, p. 330). My purpose here is to recommend rules that facilitate spotting and effectively address workplace bullying.

Bullying in perspective
According to proponents of evolutionary psychology theory, bullying provides an edge—sexual, physical, and mental—for the perpetrator. Not everyone targeted by acts of workplace bullying succumbs, however. Of intended objects of bullying, “victims” are those who believe themselves injured by these affronts, whether leveled with intent or reckless disregard (Parzefall & Salin, 2010, p. 763). Because of physiology, history, and lived experience (Dzurec, Kennison, & Gillen, in press), victims find themselves personally and interpersonally disadvantaged—made handicapped and vulnerable—by a bully’s powerful and confounding communication.

For each of us, interpretations of the world around us are personal, fixed in physiology and reinforced by day-to-day interactions. Those who are vulnerable to the affronts of bullies typically have long histories of self-doubt that render them hesitant to speak up or speak out. Voiceless, the vulnerable are systematically overlooked in workplace conversations. Seldom participating in either social activities or the decisions and actions that affect the operations of the organizations that employ them, they are thus excluded from opportunities available to everyone else. Stephen King describes their experience as follows: “They know the joke is on them, but not why” (p. 445).

Like the people they attack, bullies are physically wired and socially reinforced to behave as they do. Moreover, each time a bully’s offensive and demeaning actions are effective in victimizing a target, his or her sense of how to secure social status and material resources is strengthened. Bullies can be said to be “bistrategic controllers,” exercising social skills that attract others, even as they proffer their aggressive, coercive, and hurtful affronts. Because they dominate through simultaneous and well-planned demonstrations of social strength and personal alliance, bullies appear authentic and empathetic, even though their concern is fabricated. Through the sham persona that bullies project, others are oddly and anxiously drawn to them.

Self-assured unless …
Bullies esteem themselves. Feeling self-assured, they are certain of the quality of their social status. At the same time, however, they perceive as threatening those who are not like them. Race, gender, disability status, and age differences challenge a bully’s externally driven sense of self. Similarly, those who demonstrate skill or competence in an area of interest to the bully, those who appear nice—that is, vulnerable—or those who seem weak, especially if they are isolated socially, all unwittingly invite a bully’s attacks.

No matter the venue, bullying acts aren’t “one and done.” Rather, they are long-term, paradoxical interactions that require a relational commitment between the bullies and their victims, the latter for whom self-doubt becomes emotionally overwhelming. Sometimes, bullies and victims flip roles. Using their “one-down” status, those who feel victimized and want to speak out (even if ineffectively) can play the poor, poor, pitiful me card to intimidate and thereby counter-victimize peers, administrators, and organizational-level managers. For anyone who becomes a victim of bullying, the effect is all-consuming (Dzurec, Kennison, & Gillen, in press). Incapacitated by historically generated self-doubt and present circumstance, victims of bullying cannot let go of the injury that bullying inflicts. As one participant in a qualitative study noted: “No, I will never forget it [the bullying], never ever. There is still a large scar left inside me. I always have to carry this scar with me” (p. 113).

The workplace provides the time and venue for bullying; it is the stage on which long-established beliefs and confidences are acted out. Not only victims (those affected by self-doubt and circumstance), but others in the workplace—even administrators—are readily taken in by bullies. Once bullying is an expected and sanctioned behavior, it will continue and toxify the environment—the workplace and the people in it. Both employee health and productivity will suffer.

In short, workplace bullying yields personal loss, interpersonal madness, and organizational dysfunction (Hoel, Sheehan, Cooper, & Einarsen, 2011). Bystanders caught up in the vortex of dyadic bully-victim conflict will, through instigation, manipulation, collaboration, or abdication, further cement its acceptance in the workplace. Anxious about their own well-being in a toxic workplace, bystanders seldom intervene. Workplace bullying involves everyone, and its impact is devastating, hence the increasing attention given it in recent decades.

The responsibility of the administrator to arrest bullying—to challenge the long-established beliefs and reactive patterns of interaction born of self-doubt and circumstance—cannot be overstated. Bob Dylan once noted, “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” Likewise, the administrator—the leader—must recognize the chaos that bullying brings to the workplace and become empowered to remove its dominating influence. We will now consider how to approach that challenge.

Overcoming the chaos of workplace bullying
In many ways, workplace bullies are like drunken drivers. They control the environment even as they disrupt it. In his 2010 poem, Ethan Coen described drunken drivers, and, possibly unknowingly, workplace bullies:

The loudest have the final say,
The wanton win, the rash hold sway,
The realist’s rules of order say
The drunken driver has the right of way.

In the workplace, it’s the loathsome bully who “has the right of way.”

From an objective standpoint, it’s perfectly logical for bullying victims to just say no to the bully, but just saying no is not a skill of those vulnerable to bullying. Victims of bullying are not noted for resiliency, but rather—by virtue of their self-doubt and the resulting positions they occupy in the workplace pecking order—defeat. The last thing a vulnerable victim needs is exactly what he or she typically gets when bullying is in force—rejection. Moreover, the actions of bullies are not always straightforward, but often clandestine and intentionally hard to interpret.

Unless their actions are addressed, the rash behavior of bullies does “hold sway.” In a bully culture, “the worse you behave, the more you seem to be rewarded” (p. 213). Moreover, as bystanders come to anticipate “stigma through association,” they simply broaden the bullying context, facilitating and—to find a place for themselves at the organizational table—sometimes participating personally in bullying behavior.

For workplace administrators, dealing with bullying clearly demands a level of leadership acumen that stands cognitively and ethically above the overwhelming chaos that bullying incites. Because many healthcare and higher education institutions are characterized by work that is highly stressful and activities that are highly interpersonal, they tend to foster the growth of bullying, becoming—like surfaces exposed to E. coli—toxic. In the case of organizations, the infecting agent is not a bacterium but a behavior, and that behavior is blame.

Blame is viable in complex cultures, in the first place, because they are inherently hierarchical and compliance-based.  Organizationally, vague evaluation processes characterize these cultures. Blame is further inflamed when leaders exercise benign neglect of day-to-day operations, applauding “stars,” isolating workers, and ignoring the workplace anxiety that accompanies bullying. A culture of blame is a necessary and sufficient condition to promote and maintain bullying because, in that culture, denunciation and remorse are standard operating procedure. A neglectful leader simply fans the flames of bullying’s assaults.

Shift of culture needed
A key for effectively addressing workplace bullying is to shift from a blame culture to a learning culture (Senge, 2006). The latter focuses not on liability and fault but on ways to strengthen the professional development and wisdom of each person. With an eye toward inclusive excellence—which is characterized by promotion of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accountability for the organization as a whole and for every member of the workplace—administrators who challenge workplace bullying will engage in performance-based, not personality-based, employee assessment. They will work to match the strengths of employees with broader organizational needs. In addition to promoting self-care, they will seek to provide psychological support and enhanced communication, none of which is associated with a blame culture. Getting to this level of post-chaos leadership is step one toward “getting to great” (Pointer & Orlikoff, 2002).

In short, following the recommendation of Virginia Henderson (1964), administrators who are committed to constraining workplace bullying will assist every individual in the workplace to perform in ways “he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will, or knowledge” (p. 63). Effective leaders will commit themselves to learning about bullies’ clandestine and chaotic nature, and they will also pledge not to accept for themselves or for their employees the shame and fear that bullying brings.

Reflection, consideration, and facilitation of voice—helping others discover what one author calls “OASIS in the Overwhelm” (Grenough, 2012)—is essential to leadership acumen where bullying is concerned. As empowered leaders establish and maintain standards of excellence that are driven by evidence-based, objective, and thoughtful evaluation and follow-up of ongoing workplace processes, they will help ensure the well-being of the organization and the individuals in it. Doing so may require dismissal of people who, through acts of omission or commission, are bullying perpetrators.

The threat of bullying decreases when everyone in the workplace is empowered, encouraged to learn from mistakes, and held to a standard of performance that assures excellence. Strong leaders will provide functional and psychological supports (Shelton, 2003) that facilitate these results. In so doing, they will regenerate the virtues of self-doubt and contribute to actions that motivate planning, facilitate humility, stimulate thinking, and encourage others—organization-wide.

When that happens, bullying’s threats will be minimized, if not erased, and every individual will be good enough and develop the self-confidence needed to perform optimally and in concert with organizational goals. In a healthy, accessible, and supportive learning environment, we all can become the people we should be when, with full permission, we understand and believe “What I am is good enough if I would only be it openly.”

Editor’s note: Laura Dzurec will present two sessions at the Creating Healthy Work Environments conference, slated for 17-19 March 2017 at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. The theme of the conference is “Building a Healthy Workplace: Best Practices in Clinical and Academic Settings.” Dzurec’s presentations are titled “Transformative leadership for true workplace collaboration: Strengthening workplace culture through attention to workplace bullying affronts” and “Responding when incivility arises in the workplace.”

Laura C. Dzurec, PhD, PMHCNS-BC, ANEF, dean and professor, Widener University School of Nursing, in Chester, Pennsylvania, USA, focuses her research on interpersonal interactions and power relations and their implications for organizational advancement and success.

D'Cruz, P., & Noronha, E. (2010). The exit coping response to workplace bullying: The contribution of inclusivist and exclusivist HRM strategies. Employee Relations, 32(2), 102-120.

Dzurec, L. C., Kennison, M., & Gillen, P. (In press). The incongruity of workplace bullying victimization and inclusive excellence. Nursing Outlook.

Gaddis, J. L. (2004). Landscape of history: How historians map the past. New York, NY: Oxford.

Grenough, M. (2012). Oasis in the overwhelm: 60-second strategies for balance in a busy world (2d Ed.). Charlotte, NC: Beaver Hill.

Henderson, V. (1964). The nature of nursing. American Journal of Nursing, 64(8), 62-68.

Hoel, H., Sheehan, M. J., Cooper, C. L., & Einarsen, S. (2011). Organisational effects of workplace bullying. Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Developments in theory, research, and practice, 129-148.

Parzefall, M. R., & Salin, D. M. (2010). Perceptions of and reactions to workplace bullying: A social exchange perspective. Human Relations63(6), 761-780.

Pointer, D. D., & Orlikoff, J. A. (2002). Getting to great: Principles of health care organization governance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Crown Business.

Zafón, C. R. (2004). The shadow of the wind. (L. Graves, Trans.). New York, NY: Penguin.

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