Poor management and avoiding responsibility may contribute to workplace bullying, leaving employees feeling sadness, shame and pain.
According to research by University of Waikato PhD student Alison Thirlwall, who graduates this week, bullying is usually the by-product of an already troubled workplace and by avoiding responsibility, workplaces contribute to the problem.
Her interest in workplace bullying was sparked when she worked at a south island polytechnic and she found a gap in literature while researching an abusive situation amongst the workforce.
To conduct her research, Thirlwall collected survey data and interviewed workers from 10 New Zealand polytechnics and institutes of technology.
“My enquiry into workplace bullying aims to show how bullying starts, how it’s experienced and managed by targets and the way it ends.”
She found that “Bullying is a process that exhibits a common pattern and is much more than simply negative or inappropriate behaviour. In its most extreme form, targets can be subjected to ostracism and campaigns of verbal and behavioural abuse.”
“Common types of negative behaviour reported in the interviews included shouting, rudeness, and unfairness but the impact of these behaviours was magnified by the overall process, sometimes leading to targets raising grievances, or in extreme cases, wanting to assault their abusers.”
Thirlwall says being in a low-power position does not necessarily make someone more likely to be bullied and men and women reported similar levels of bullying.
“Targets of bullying construct their experience as a complex process that typically starts and ends with a change in an already troubled workplace. The most frequent emotions to emerge are linked to sadness, shame and pain.”
Bullying was described metaphorically in terms of fights, madness, and isolation and perpetrators were described as duplicitous, dangerous animals, and explosive.
“Consequently, targets perceived their job satisfaction as negatively affected. Interestingly, their job performance was unaffected. Enjoyment of, or a commitment to, the job itself appeared to mitigate the effects of bullying on performance but the problems remained.”
One thing that stood out in Thirlwall’s research was how emphatic targets of bullying were about the difficulties they encountered while seeking support from management.
“Organisations, including unions, typically sequestered, or set aside, their responsibility for managing bullying; consequently they contributed to its continuation,” says Thirlwall.
Earlier this year Thirlwall received an outstanding doctoral student award and is one of 500 University of Waikato students who graduate this week at ceremonies held on October 19-20.