Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 9;   March 3, 2010: What Is Workplace Bullying?

What Is Workplace Bullying?

by

We're gradually becoming aware that workplace bullying is a significant deviant pattern in workplace relationships. To deal effectively with it, we must know how to recognize it. Here's a start.
George III, King of Great Britain and King of Ireland, 1738-1820

George III (George William Frederick, 4 June 1738 - 29 January 1820) was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland during the American Revolu­tion­ary War. The U.S. Declaration of Indepen­dence includes a list of Facts submitted as evidence of the need to declare independence. Among them is this: "He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures."

This tactic has its analog in the modern workplace. Some bully bosses habitually schedule late meetings on short notice for times that they know will conflict with home responsibilities of their targets, such as a late meeting on a day when the target is supposed to pick up the kids at day care. Or they require a subordinate to make a business trip on the day of a child's graduation. Was King George III a bully? We cannot say with certainty whether the policies in question were solely his creation, but this particular tactic is surely a bullying tactic. Painting, oil on canvas, by Benjamin West (1738-1820). Painted for George III and Queen Charlotte. Now in the Royal Collection.

You've probably heard about bullying lately — both in school and at work. Perhaps your company or organization has a policy about bullying, or maybe one is being created. Maybe you fear someone, or someone makes you feel uncomfortable. Maybe you think some people are bullies. And maybe they are.

Bullying is a tragic but real part of work life. To defend yourself, or just to survive, you must know what bullying is. There is no universally accepted definition yet. For now, you must pick a definition that works for you. Here's mine:

Workplace bullying is any aggressive behavior, associated with work, and primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm to others.

This definition encompasses a wider range of behavior than most definitions. Let's explore it.

Workplace bullying need not occur in the workplace, though it can. It need not involve abuse of power, though it can. It doesn't have to be part of a repeated pattern, though it can be. It doesn't even have to actually cause physical or psychological harm to others, though it can. All that's required is that it be aggressive, associated with work, and that it be primarily intended to cause harm, physically or psychologically.

For example, suppose Rita falsely accuses you of making mistakes in the accounting system. That might be bullying, if her primary goal is to harm you. For instance, Rita might consider you a rival. To sabotage your career, she accuses you of incompetence. Her primary goal is to harm you. That's bullying.

But if Rita lodges her complaint out of concern for accuracy generally, and if she is simply mistaken about your role in the alleged inaccuracies, the behavior might be oafish, destructive, rude, and disrespectful, but it isn't bullying. Causing you harm would not have been her primary objective.

Jake manages an IT group. He tells himself that he wants his group to be the most productive in the company. He constantly hovers over the people he manages, setting near-impossible goals. Workplace bullying need not
occur in the workplace, though
it can. It need not involve
abuse of power, though it can.
People who question him about his demanding style — or worse, people who don't meet the goals he sets — are either terminated whenever there are layoffs, or assigned to remote locations involving 100% travel. That's why his people regularly work killing hours. Jake believes productivity is high because he runs a tight ship, but he seems to get some kind of perverse pleasure from the distress his policies cause.

Jake is a bully. He might be achieving high productivity, but since there are many more effective ways to accomplish that, his choice to employ such draconian measures suggests that his primary objective is the psychological pain his approach produces.

Reflect on this definition and these examples. Think about how you're treated and how you treat others. What do you notice now that you haven't noticed before? Go to top Top  Next issue: Guidelines for Delegation  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesAre you being targeted by a workplace bully? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just USD 9.99. Order Now!

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Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
Gen. Robert E. Lee's traveling chess setSo You Want the Bullying to End: II
If you're the target of a workplace bully, ending the bullying can be an elusive goal. Here are some guidelines for tactics to bring it to a close.
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Bullying is a complex social pattern. Thinking clearly about bullying is difficult in the moment because our emotions can distract us. Here are some short insights about bullying that are easy to remember in the moment.

See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.

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