November 05, 2014

Culture of cruelty: why bullying thrives in higher education

Why employees bully other employees is a question academics have sought to answer since the 1990s.

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 (

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 



Anonymous said...

During one of the many times I was bullied by my last department head while I was teaching, I suggested that we go to mediation. I thought that since we couldn't arrive at a resolution that we both could agree to by ourselves, perhaps a third party could help. Maybe there was something at least one of us were missing.

Did it help? Of course not. I only succeeded in making him mad. He pounded his fist on the table, said he wanted nothing to do with that "mediation BS" (or words to that effect) and added: "I will deal with you as your supervisor!"

The fact that I suggested mediation, which he refused, meant nothing to the dean. He himself was only to glad to be rid of me and I'm sure my telling him that only made him more determined.

One word of advice. NEVER rely on your staff association or union. It may be working with the management as collaborators and, yes, it happened to me.

My department head put all sorts of defamatory material in my personnel file without my knowledge. This was contrary to regulations as not only was I to receive copies of such submissions, I had the right to offer a rebuttal. The president of our staff association at the time received copies of that material, as did the dean. For some mysterious reason, not only was my name left off the circulation list, I had no knowledge of it.

The fact that I had no idea of the allegations made against me was used as a weapon, claiming that I was in "denial". How could I deny what I had no knowledge of?

This could have gone on had the staff association changed presidents. The successor suggested we look at my file when all this nonsense came to my attention. Regrettably, internal association politics resulted in her being force out of office.

Nice place I taught at, eh?

Anonymous said...

Here's another nasty form of bullying.

American journalist Shana Alexander once said: "Trying to squash a rumour is like trying to unring a bell." Rather than harassing someone head-on, which is often overt and can be proven, one can do it behind the scenes. The results usually can be quite damaging, which is, of course, the whole objective. All one has to do is to quietly release a bit of tattle about someone, preferably fictitious, to that person's detractors and let tongue-wagging and active imaginations do the rest.

After that, anything that the target does will only confirm the rumour. Here's how it works. If it's denied, that means that person has something to hide. If nothing is said, the rumour must obviously be true, right? ("If he didn't do anything wrong, why doesn't he say something?") Remember, silence gives consent.

Of course, if the target actually confesses, then the rumours were true.

This complements the notorious manner of dealing with people as outlined at:

Resorting to due legal process is rather inconvenient for the bully. For one thing, it takes too long and it requires actual verifiable evidence. Then there's the possibility that the allegations about the target could be rejected or brushed aside, particularly with real facts. Those facts could manipulate magistrates and juries into actually believing that what's been said actually is untrue and the accused be found not guilty or otherwise acquitted.

Rumours also remove the messiness of rejecting evidence favourable to the target. That evidence could, of course, have been fabricated or tainted, at least in the eyes of the accusers.

But damaging rumours are a gift that keeps on giving. The accused could resort to litigation to seek compensation for damages. However, court proceedings often become part of the public record, thereby further propagating those rumours. After all, why would someone start such rumours unless they're true?

Also, rumours could easily find their way into the target's personnel files, thereby impeding the target's chances for finding other employment. After all, personnel managers *always* tell the truth and will never contradict their counterparts at other employers.

One of the beauties of rumours is that they perfectly serve the course of justice, namely fulfilling the bully's objectives, usually in the manner that the bully wants. Why stop at besmirching someone's reputation when one can ruin the rest of their lives and do so for nothing? All one needs are some receptive ears, loose tongues, and a lot of patience.

Better yet, it's all perfectly legal. The target is the one who has to prove that their reputation or way of life has been damaged.

Anonymous said...

By the way, my department head justified his bullying and harassment by claiming he was only trying to "help" me. He and his henchman, the assistant DH, "helped" me a lot and didn't hesitate to do so.