The perspective proposed by Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann, father of workplace bullying research, is that we bully one another because of factors within our work environment, including the nature of our work and organisational culture.
Characteristics of our jobs, such as low autonomy, boring tasks, unclear roles and high workload have all been implicated as possible causes of bullying. Employees working in uninspiring jobs may be tempted to enact destructive behaviour as a source of stimulation, whereas individuals stressed out by heavy workloads may perpetrate bullying to cope with frustration or to assert personal control.
What causes bullying: personality or environment?Bullying may be further facilitated by organisational cultures and structures that permit it. In certain organisational cultures, bullying is a means of achieving goals, and in cultures characterised by high internal competition, it may be the most effective way of improving reputation and climbing the latter. Reward systems can sometimes provoke bullying as aggressive tactics could be thought the best way to rid supervisors of either underperforming, or overperforming subordinates.
The other perspective on why adults bully concerns personality factors. An overarching personality profile cannot be applied to bullies or victims, however some consistent themes are apparent.
Traits associated with bullies include narcissism, unstable self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of social competence, likewise traits linked to victims are vulnerability, low self-esteem and a propensity to experience negative emotion.
The vulnerable victim is one typology associated with victimised individuals, but there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that victims share the same personality traits as perpetrators, leading to suggestions that perpetrators and victims can hold both roles.
Another view concerns interpersonal differences, as individuals who possess traits that differentiate them from the rest of the workgroup can make them vulnerable to bullying. For instance, in workplaces dominated by men, woman are more likely to be bullied and vice versa.
Research continues to address the causes of bullying, but perhaps surprisingly those investigating it are themselves operating in a risk sector as high levels of bullying are consistently reported in higher education.
In the UK, the overall prevalence of workplace bullying – based on the proportion of working people who have experienced it – across all working sectors is usually estimated at between 10-20%.
However the percentage of people who have experienced bullying within academic settings is higher than the national average. UK higher education studies have found the percentage of people experiencing it ranges between 18% to 42%.
Undermining behaviour: part of the job for academics?Initially, it seems strange that more bullying occurs in higher education, as academic jobs are still characterised by large amounts of personal autonomy and the academy promotes values of collegiality and civility. However, a closer inspection can provide clues as to why bullying occurs in this context.
Cultures where bullying flourishes have been characterised as competitive, adversarial and politicised. While academia can be on occasion adversarial, it is more commonly competitive and political. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the bullying behaviours most cited within academic contexts – threats to professional status and obstructive behaviours, designed to inhibit employees achieving their goals.
A Canadian study explored academic bullying behaviours in more depth, finding that having your contributions ignored, being the subject of gossip and being undermined and belittled in front of others were the behaviours most commonly experienced.
In the higher education context where discussion, debate and criticism are encouraged, behaviours directed at undermining another individual can be more easily justified as part of the job. While competition for limited research resources may lead to displays of power and hidden agendas that can make the wider academic context even more toxic.
Furthermore, the “publish or perish” mentality, combined with teaching students and grant submission targets contribute to inherent role conflict. Such daily demands inhibit the ability of some academics to cope with bullying, and demands cause stress which may lead otherwise rational people to engage in bullying as the spiral of work pressure increases.
Due to a lack of available research, it is unclear whether bullying is getting worse in academia, although Jamie Lester, author of the book Workplace bullying in higher education feels it is on the rise. It has been noted that higher education has become more competitive and hierarchical which may facilitate greater levels of bullying.
However without documenting the rates of bullying in academic contexts over time it is impossible to discern whether the problem is getting worse. For this reason it has been suggested that academic institutions benchmark the nature and prevalence of bullying behaviours, while providing education and guidelines designed to reinstate the more collegial culture that academia may have lost.
So how can employees beat bullying? Here’s what to do if you are facing bullying at work:• Firstly, don’t blame yourself – this will only make you feel worse.
• Keep a written record of events, along with any evidence of negative acts (eg emails, written correspondence).
• Seek informal resolution early in the conflict – speaking to the perpetrator early on may enable resolution without formal approaches that can be lengthy and stressful.
• If the bullying persists, identify whether your organisation has a grievance policy and report the problem to a relevant individual eg union representative, HR manager, line manager or occupational health adviser.
• Discuss it with your support network inside and outside of work. Support is also available from charitable organisations. For instance, the mental health charity Mind can offer support via phone (0300 123 3393) and email (email@example.com).
Sam Farley is a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Work Psychology (IWP), Sheffield University Management School – follower him on Twitter: @sam_farley3
Christine Sprigg is a lecturer in occupational psychology at IWP, Sheffield University Management School