February 24, 2010

The science of bullying

It was only a matter of time before accusations of bullying would surface from Number 10 Downing Street, targeting even the Prime Minister. Buckingham Palace may be next. Over the past two decades, articles about bullying in The Times have leapt from about 200 to about 1300 per year. The increase is similar in other British and American newspapers.

Bullying is an ancient word, but today's anti-bullying movement is just a few decades old. The schoolyard was its initial focus. Policies designed to make children play nice are now widespread. Workplace bullying is the more recent concern. Has anybody not seen "The Devil Wears Prada"? A "Respectful Workplace Policy" is all the rage these days in universities, hospitals, and the public service.

What does the current preoccupation with bullying have to do with science? Not much. Like harassment, psychological violence, intimidation, and abuse, bullying is an epithet of office politics. What it means is mainly in the eye of the accuser. Calling someone a bully is often a way of speaking power to truth. If the label can be made to stick, the accuser's stock rises and that of the accused plunges in the economy of workplace rewards.

Yet evidence abounds of degradation in schools and workplaces so real, extreme and indefensible as to offend even a cynic's sense of right and wrong. Humiliation at work can and does lead to suicide, depression, heart attack, stroke, family breakdown, and many lesser ills. Targets may even lash back, go postal, shoot the place up, but this is very rare.

Next June in Cardiff, hundreds of social scientists will gather for the Seventh International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment. To judge by the earlier conferences, many attendees will bring mainly the good intentions with which the road to hell is paved. Many others will report on disciplined efforts to make scientific sense of why people at work sometimes act cruelly toward superiors, subordinates, or peers.

I am among the specialists on nastiness in the academic workplace, an area of study for which one needs a wide-angle lens. Bullying flourishes in universities, as the UK blogspot, bulliedacademics, routinely documents. Criteria for distinguishing good work from bad are ambiguous. Most professors are personally invested in their work. On account of tenure and union protections, few targets of collegial hostility can be quickly fired; they must instead be slowly tortured out of their jobs. Despite nominal adherence to rules of reason and evidence, academics feel the same elemental preference as other mortals for people of their own kind - in ethnicity, race, language, social class, sex, age, and sexual orientation.

I am also among those researchers who avoid the word bullying, finding it too vague and imprecise for scientific purposes. Following the Swedish psychologist, Heinz Leymann, I study "workplace mobbing," the ganging up of managers and/or coworkers against a target, toward the end of shunning, ridiculing, punishing, and eventually eliminating him or her. This dire form of collective aggression, found in nature as well as the human realm, is clearly identifiable, and a reasonably coherent body of knowledge about it has by now been amassed.

Despite our many stumbles, disputes, false starts, and dead ends, the researchers who meet in Cardiff will keep soldiering on toward an empirically sound science of workplace conflict. To the extent we build that little science, we can then apply it effectively for keeping the larger scientific enterprise from being undermined by meanness and chicanery.

We are not at that point yet. Without conclusive evidence one way or another, scholars and activists will continue to argue about how the incidence of mobbing and bullying can be reduced. Some will press for "healthy workplace laws". Others will promote grass-roots interpersonal techniques.

Meanwhile, in workplaces as different as No. 10 and your local university, the name-calling and recriminations will go on.

Kenneth Westhues is a professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

From: http://timesonline.typepad.com


Beauty and Health Editor said...

Well, I raised a grievance against my ex-Manager who is and was a complete bully in every sense of the word. She was inadequate at her job and hadn't a clue, of course she tried to project this onto other members of staff, particularly the female employees.

Now, you have to understand that this woman was a tyrant in every way and among her many crude and vulgar comments to me personally, was "I'm sorry, but this is not a democracy".

When I applied for the position of Student IT Support at the University based in Elephant and Castle, there were 3 separate vacancies.

I used to be a student at this University. An Asian girl who was in one of my classes applied for a position in the same department when she graduated, a year before me and she lasted a few months before she fled. Another Asian guy was on long-term off sick for something like 3/4 months then one day the Manager (bully) walked in to announce that he had resigned and was not coming back, nobody seemed to care about this, they just carried on working.

Recently, I found out a White British girl who came the week after me has also recently fled or been pushed out of the organisation.

I am going to write a comprehensive account of my extremely horrific experience working at this University very soon, because I feel that the world beeds to know what is going on behind closed doors at these UK Universities.

Finally, I consider myself to be a busy hardworking person, most of the time in this department, I used to practically look around for work to do as in my view, the department has way too many staff members who try to look busy. I aslo made my deductions that the Manager had time to go aroud breathing down everybody's neck because she herself didn't have much work to do, so she had more time to bully everyone.

Typical public sector though, full of bureacratic, fat and lazy people sitting around drinking cups of tea and bullying on people because they themselves are inadequate control freaks.

Anonymous said...

Update - For me it feels like it is turning into mobbing... and a collective grievance could be on the way.

Aphra Behn

Beauty and Health Editor said...


Seek advice from a good Solicitor and take your evidence with you. I wish I had taken a video camera into my meetings with that tyrant who called herself a Manager, that way she wouldn't have gotten away with anything. Video footage does not lie.

In the meantime, most of these Universities are now wondering why their budgets are being cut. One huge factor to consider in wasting University funds is the problem of high staff turnover, the recruitment process takes up an enormous amount of time and effort from advertising, marketing to the poinbt where the best candidates for the job are actually picked and offered the position.

Why then do some Universities allow so much money (taxpayer's) to be wasted by continually having to recruit new members of staff in such a short space of time.

If there is a high turnover of staff in a particular department, it should be investigated thoroughly, because 1) It could save these Universities money 2) It could expose an extremely poor Manager/Management style.

Not everyone has good people skills, although any Tom, Dick or Jane could be given a Managerial position depending on WHO they know within the Organisation, and not WHAT they know.

Beauty and Health Editor said...

Additionally, what you will find in a department with a bully for a Manager is that a great number of staff will suck up/kiss ass to this person and tell tales about other staff members in order to take the spotlight off themselves and save their own bacon.

Just talking as a casual observer in these matters.

A good Manager should not be swearing at work and constantly using the F-word. This is chavtastic behaviour, in my opinion.

Neither should such a person be gossiping and talking about confidential matters about members of staff who have left the organisation, such as who in the organisation had a drug habit etc...especdially NOT in earshot of new staff members to the department...Not professional!

But then again, this is what happens when any Tom, Dick or Jane is given a bit of power to rule over everyone. They get power hungry.

I also find that a lot of these bullying types lack empathy for their fellow human beings, are paranoid and think the people they bully are one day going to steal their jobs. This is why they feel the need to put people in their place, shout them down and pass catty comments at any given opportunity.

It makes them feel as though they are important and most relevant of all, in charge of the situation.

However, face up to a bully and they feel like a little mouse...LOL.

Anonymous said...

In my case, it is outright mobbing. Most worrying is that the extent of bullying will go beyond this work place. Even when I am already out of the place, wild rumors and false accusation still be spreading around and make my life miserable right on the first day of my new position. Nothing ever being said to me, but from all the nasty and hatred looks I received from strangers (collectively at different places and conferences), it is not hard to surmise that I have got a "bad" reputation. Only if I know what it is so I can defend myself. In rare cases, when I did know it is often too late for me to do anything about it. It is very scary. No tragedy occurs mostly because I behave well and have found my inner peace. But how long will I last when this kind of persecution keep getting at me! and causing dramatic experience to my loved ones who unfairly have become witness of numerous injustice and cruelty. There is no way you can face up to bullies, they keep getting at you until the day you die.