May 11, 2008

Workplace bullying: a cross-level assessment

By Joyce Heames and Mike Harvey, University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi, USA

Recent studies indicate that workplace bullying behavior is a noteworthy and prevalent issue in organizations around the world (e.g.Demark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Ireland, UK, Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, US, and other countries). A survey conducted in Canada revealed that 78 percent of the respondents felt incivility had worsened in the previous ten years (Pearson, 1999). A survey of 5,000 employees across all sectors of British industry reported that one in ten workers had been bullied in the previous six months causing stress and an estimated 1 million work days lost in production (Keelan, 2000). A study of 9,000 federal employees in the US estimated the cost of workplace bullying and harassment activities to be $180 million in production days annually (Farrell, 2002). In addition, in Iceland, researchers revealed that 8.3 percent of the workforce had experienced and 23.4 percent had witnessed bullying in the six months preceding the study (Olafsson and Johannsdottir, 2004).

…Three avenues of thought have developed around explanations for the inherent characteristics of the workplace bully. One group placed emphasis on the genetic and childhood experiences that lead to workplace bullying. Raine et al. (1994) set forth biological “causes” of aggressive bullying behavior in the workplace. Some support has been shown for the assertion is that the adult bully learned this behavior in childhood, is unable to break the psychological cycle as he or she grows into adulthood, and thus mimics the destructive behavior either at home or in the workplace (Haynie et al., 2001; Robinson and O’Leary-Kelly, 1998).

A second group of academics has looked to the context of the workplace and relational stress issues as being instrumental in provoking deviant behavior such as bullying (Einarsen, 2000; Einarsen and Skogstad, 1996; Heames et al., 2006). Their premise suggests that organizational structure, group norms, status inconsistency, and the resulting strained relationships can contribute to or escalate negative behavior that can lead to bullying. O’Leary-Kelly et al. (1996) conceptualized a model of organization motivated aggression, which focused on actions and outcomes instigated by characteristic and situations in the organization that led to aggressive behaviors. A third faction suggests a combination of innate characteristics and social contexts encourages overt bullying (Espelage et al., 2000). They contend that it is both situational and dispositional with employees’ behavior being governed by both their genetic (natural instincts) and the norms of the workplace (environmental instincts).

Pearson (1999) reported that 46 percent of workers considered quitting because of the increased pressure due to the hostile environments created by bullies and 12 percent did quit their jobs. Although this paper proposes that bullying is felt across other levels of the organization, it appears that the victim as the immediate target endures the most dramatic corollary. The target of repetitive bullying behavior can become personally traumatized and in some cases psychologically scarred for life (Leymann and Gustafsson, 1996; Namie, 2003).

The profile of the individual who is repetitively victimized by a bully can become known in the organization, which in turn, lowers their social standing within the organization and results in an even lower level of self-esteem (Crawford, 1999). Individual and social factors within the organization have been identified for employees that might be considered easy targets for victimization (i.e. low self-esteem, disability, physical weakness, shyness and unassertive personality, lack of friends – especially lack of high powered friends, submissive, low in independence, and introversion) (Aquino and Lamertz, 2004; Smith et al., 2003). All of these characteristics leave the potential victim vulnerable and open for the more aggressive personality of the bully (Aquino and Byron, 2002):

The harmful actions directed against a selected target are often performed deliberately to exercise social control, enhance self-identity, or achieve justice as defined by the actor (the bully) (Felson, 1992, p. 5).

Another central tenet for consideration is the victim’s disposition or outlook on life. A predisposition to negativity lends itself to a victim’s perception and belief that once bullied they will always be bullied (Coyne et al., 2003; Jockin et al., 2001). Negative affectivity (NA) is defined as “the tendency to experience negative emotions across situations and time” (Perrewe´ and Spector, 2002, p. 37). According to Watson and Clark (1984), persons with high NA are prone to focus on the negatives aspects of their personal environment and are less happy with their lives, and may project a meek demeanor. If the victim becomes labeled as a “submissive” and perhaps “deserving of mistreatment”, they can be targets for other aggressive behaviors and may even become the scapegoat for other members of the group (Aquino and Lamertz, 2004). Some victims of repeated serious work stressors such as bullying suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), an extreme case of anxiety disorder that affects every aspect of a person’s life and including their mental health (Leymann, 1996)…

It is believed that peers, subordinates, and immediate managers are often frightened and sometimes afraid of retribution from the bully if they try to intervene and thus, may experience self-doubt when faced with such a situation (Bowes-Sperry and O’Leary-Kelly, 2005; Delbecq, 2001). For fear, the bully will turn on and make them the target of his/her destructive behavior, other group members maybe hesitant to voice objection to the behavior or to express concern for the victim. This fear perceived by the observers does not have to be real relative to the ability of the bully to actually retaliate (O’Gorman, 1986). Consequently, self-preservation appears to drive many group members into a mode of silence and acquiescence



Anonymous said...

These journal articles are so helpful - they provide a useful conceptual language for discussing wpb - which is under theorised - I tried to get the whole article but I couldn't.... this article which looks at a cross level model of bullying introduces the concept of 'spillover' from one level to the next.... this is helpful... in my experience institutions often want to keep the focus at the dyadic level and are very resistant to the focus being at the organisational level... at the dyadic level explanations such as 'personality clash' can be used... thus avoiding the more serious frame of bullying...

... it also begins to explore the institutional 'silence' surrounding wpb...

Let's have more articles... so we can build up the theoretical frameworks...

Aphra Behn

Anonymous said...

Looking to individual dispositions may only partially explain, or may be insufficient to explain the bully or the target. Zimardo's "The Lucifer Effect" suggests that situational factors, or workplace cultures, may trigger some individuals to be bullies when they may not otherwise be.