October 15, 2009

Study confirms role of perpetrator incompetence in workplace bullying

Individuals bullied at work have intuitively felt that they pose a threat to bullies -- the integrity of independence, possessing more technical skill, being well liked, and acting ethically and honestly. When personally threatened, people tend to get defensive. This seems true in bullying situations at the bully to target, interpersonal, level.

Bullies present themselves as omnipotent and powerful to dissuade confrontation and to keep from being revealed as something different. Targets intuitively sense that bullying is compensatory behavior, attempts to cover wrongdoing with bluster and bravado. It's like the Wizard of Oz in the palace who is exposed by Toto, the dog, when he pulled back the curtain showing the small man pretending to be bigger than he was. It's nearly impossible to call a bully insecure or cursed with a sense of self-inadequacy because of the power they often enjoy in the workplace. However, the intuition of bullied targets and witnessing co-workers is spot on. Bullies can be small people.

Now there is some science to back the common-sense notion.

In a 4-study research paper to be published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science, by Nathaniel Fast (University of Southern California) and Serena Chen (University of California, Berkeley) linked aggression at work to perceived inadequacy of people in power (bosses). [Fast, N.J. & Chen, S. (2009) When the boss feels inadequate: Power, incompetence and aggression. Psychological Science, Nov. 2009] Three of the studies tested working adults and are most relevant to the workplace.

In the first study, 90 working people completed assessments of their formal authority and power at work, the degree to which they feared being negatively evaluated by others (the inadequacy measure), and their level of aggressiveness as traditionally measured (willingness to hit others, ease with which arguments are entered). The aggression survey is a reliable predictor of physical violence, verbal abuse and the tendency to get into fights. For people with organizational power, believing themselves to be incompetent led them to be more aggressive than competent people. This was not true for people without power.

In the second study with working adults, some people were guided to think about their power or competence beforehand. Aggression translated into how loud (decibel levels from 0 to 130) they would be willing to blast a horn at another person who made mistakes over 10 trials. For people who already had organizational power, being primed to think even more about that power made them more aggressive if they also felt incompetent.

The third study of adults asked participants to rate their organizational power and their aggressiveness as in the first study. People were then sorted into low- and high-power groups based the demand their jobs required. Low power tasks typically involved doing simple work, completing tasks, High power tasks involved influencing others -- supervising, closing sales. Then, the experimenters manipulated the perceived level of competence for people within each power group. Those subjected to their own incompetence were instructed to write about an experience where they failed to meet a task demand. Competence was primed by having those people recall a time when they successfully completed work projects.

This study also added another manipulated factor. Half of the people in each group were asked to select the most important value to them from a list (social life, relationships, business, etc.). They then wrote a paragraph justifying the value's personal importance. This was done to bolster a sense of self-worth, a self-affirmation. People in the no affirmation group selected their least favorite value and wrote about how the value could be important to others.

In all three studies, incompetence increased aggression for high-power, but not for powerless, working adults. Aggression decreased when powerful people were reminded of their competence. When incompetence was primed (the person was reminded of failures) for low-power people, aggression decreased. The affirmation factor created some ego defensiveness and it seems to be the explanatory factor for why power and incompetence mix the way they do to lead to more aggression.

Thus, the results point to the dangerous combination of incompetence in the hands of people with power. The authors, Fast and Chen, highlight that their work demonstrates that power holders have an increased vulnerability to perceiving potential psychological threats. Rather than feeling safe in their positions of power with the ability to disproportionately affect the outcomes of other people on a routine basis, the feelings of incompetence escalate the perception of threat in the eyes of people with actual power and authority. In turn, this leads to ego defensiveness (a self-protective mental device) that leads to aggression.

There was some limited exposure of participants to flattery, but the manipulations were weak and artificial compared to real-world kissing-up, ingratiation, that bullies receive at work. So, research on flattery's effect on aggression by a boss is yet to be advanced.

It would be an innovative to extrapolate link between perceived threat and aggression to the organizational level. Executive sponsors feel threatened when their bullying toadies are accused of wrongdoing. They react defensively. With guidance from legal counsel and HR, the entire organization responds defensively attacking the bullied accuser who dared to reveal internal weaknesses. But that is a study for another day. As they say, in the academe, further study is warranted.

From: http://www.examiner.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Incompetence and power - what a cocktail... my path on the grievance process is met with ever more unbelievable attempts to intimidate me... described by the chair of the grievance committee as 'minor changes to the grievance process'

... such rich data - says the researcher in me..

... but what can I do with this data

...where can I tell my story

Aphra Behn