Research shows workplace bullying involves us all

August 1, 2012

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New research from Murdoch University and Edith Cowan University sheds light on the roles bystanders play in workplace bullying.

To better understand how co-workers can impact conflict, Dr Megan Paull of Murdoch’s School of Business and her partners created 13 ‘types’ – ranging from the aggressive Instigating Bystander to the Submitting Bystander, who ends up becoming a substitute for the victim.

Middle spectrum types include the Manipulating Bystander, Abdicating Bystander, Defending Bystander and Sympathising Bystander.

“Bystanders are not incidental, but are an integral part of the context of bullying, with some siding with the bully or victim, either actively or passively,” Dr Paull said.

“People don’t always appreciate the impact of their actions, or inactions. For example, a social reaction to walking into a room where colleagues are laughing is to laugh along without thinking. But you could be adding fuel to someone’s embarrassment.”

Dr Paull said establishing context was important, and that the issue was complex, noting competition and rivalry were natural in work and social relationships. She also cautioned that what might appear as bullying to an outsider could be fine with the target of the act.

“It’s not a cut and dried issue, but we’re trying to raise awareness and make organisations and individuals aware of the responsibilities they have to respect and appreciate the subtleties of human relationships and psychological well-being,” Dr Paull said.

“Awareness can lead managers and staff to develop effective strategies for diffusing potential situations. Studies have shown that people who recognise their roles, and have the tools to act, can make a positive difference.”

Dr Paull said her study was informed by research on school bullying, an area which has benefited from training, awareness and culture change programs.

She noted workplace bullying has become a matter of concern on a national level. In May 2012, Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Bill Shorten MP requested a House of Representatives report on the issue.

Comments (4 responses)

Anonymous August 2, 2012

What if it's the management that is the main issue of being the bully and also choosing to be a bystander?

Chris August 5, 2012

Studies need to go further again to the home lives of Corporate bullies and psycopaths, they are the same at home as they are at work. Having lived for over a year with a corporate bully and knowing what she was like at home, you realise they treat family and friends in a similar way to their colleagues at work, as long as family/friends overtly support them they do not see them as a threat.

Rob Payne August 7, 2012

Response from Megan Paull: The concept of “corporate psychopath” is one which is receiving some attention. What is not clear is how much of a bully’s behaviour is the result of their personality and how much is a product of a combination of circumstance and other factors in the workplace. Some people’s behaviour changes from one context to another, while some people behaviour in similar ways in all situations. In addition some behaviours are acceptable in one place or context and not in another. Yes more work is needed to explore all of these concepts.

Rob Payne August 7, 2012

Response from Megan Paull: The actions of management with respect to bullying are also in need of further exploration. Labelling the actions of management as bullying may depend on context, and at times people may interpret management action as bullying when others read the same actions as strong management. In our typology the abdicating bystander is a manager who has a responsibility to take action, and does not act – but we need to understand why this may be the case. Often action or inaction – which contribute to the bullying scenario – is not as simple as it seems. Inaction may be the result, for example, of not knowing what to do in a particular situation, or for fear of having their actions misinterpreted, or fear of escalating the conflict. Further work is being done to explore bystanders. We hope this typology is a starting point.

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