Workplace bullying: looking beyond ’victim and perpetrator’

Workplace bullying seems to have been on the rise during the pandemic even as more of us worked from home. Bupa’s 2021 ‘Workplace Wellbeing Census’, found that reports of workplace bullying negatively affecting employees wellbeing had more than doubled since the previous survey in 2019.

With that in mind we were interested to read a recent research paper from Sweden: ‘Workplace bullying investigations: A complex endeavour for a complex problem’. We found much food for thought in the authors’ analysis of 81 workplace bullying complaints and summarise the key points below.

The problem of getting to grips with workplace ‘bullying’

Introducing their research, the authors say:

  • The definition of workplace bullying is vague. It is poorly understood in theory and practice in many countries. They say this makes it difficult for employers who have a statutory duty to tackle it.
  • Research into bullying has its origins in the school setting. This led to the dominance of the idea of victim and perpetrator as a way of understanding bullying behaviour. Employment policy has tended to reflect that idea. Those investigating bullying complaints often look for evidence in that light.
  • However, critics say the victim-perpetrator model ignores social and organisational influences on behaviour. By focusing simply on the individuals involved, it can result in scapegoating or victim-blaming.

The authors point to the work of psychologist Prof Heinz Leymann. His influential research on ‘mobbing’ (bullying by a group) at work led him to develop a ‘work environment’ approach to understanding bullying.

Leymann’s perspective

Leymann identified a wide range of workplace bullying behaviours. Among them he described six forms of ‘unethical communication’ which can harm people’s psychological health or cause them deep offence. These are: constant criticism, hostile body language, ignoring, unhelpful bureaucratic responses, refusal to discuss communication, and ostracising.

He argued that acts of bullying are a process rather than isolated events, and that those in power at work have a significant influence in that process. They can create, or fail to tackle, an ‘enabling environment’ for conflict, and stigmatize, blame and exclude victims.

Leymann uncovered the strong negative effects on people affected. He showed how bullying undermines the target’s usual coping mechanisms by impairing their communication, social relationships, reputation, work quality and physical and mental health.

The research

However, as the more simplistic victim-perpetrator understanding of workplace bullying has remained dominant, the researchers set out to test it.

They analysed 81 real cases of bullying in Swedish workplaces to see how applicable the victim-perpetrator model is. They also considered whether it was possible to apply Leymann’s approach, particularly the idea of ‘unethical communication’, to help understand the cases.

What were the findings?

The researchers caution that the study is not quantitative research, however the broad thrust of their findings is of interest.

  • Fewer than a quarter of cases involved bullying which seemed to conform to the simple victim-perpetrator model. The study categorised most cases as follows:
    • Those that involved acts of hostility by employees who were not aware of the effect of their behaviour.
    • Those treated as interpersonal conflicts even though there was evidence of multiple people involved.
    • Those where the complainant had been socially excluded because they were perceived as being difficult in some way.
  • In half of the cases, they found the accused had acted improperly but not to the extent of bullying*. Most of these cases involved either poor staff management (including poor communication and failure to deal with problems), or avoidance of a particular individual by other colleagues.
  • In a quarter of cases, they found that the accused person had not done anything wrong. In some of these, justifiable management action had been interpreted as bullying. Many were felt to have arisen due, at least in part, to ambiguities around day to day matters between employees. The authors say these cases were better understood as interpersonal conflict.
  • More than a quarter of cases showed evidence of problematic behaviour on both sides.
  • In half of the cases the complainant themselves acted inappropriately. This was enough to have warranted their dismissal in 1 in 10 cases. There were very few cases where it was felt the accuser made the bullying allegations as a ‘power play’ to resist supervision or boundaries.

(* The Swedish definition of bullying as described by the authors places more emphasis on the repetition and duration of bullying behaviour than is perhaps the case in the UK definition. However, as they point out, the definition is vague.)

What were the conclusions?
  • All of the cases showed signs of severe problems, whether or not there was bullying.
  • Most cases were complex. They involved several people and organisational problems.
  • At the heart of many cases were problems concerning roles, routines, discretion, supervision, and neglect of problems.
  • The authors argue all of these could be addressed at an organisational level (thus supporting Leymann’s theory).
What were the practical recommendations?

The authors suggest:

  • Managers should receive training in conflict resolution so they are able to quickly address problems before they escalate. Creating a safe environment with clear expectations to prevent bullying behaviours is vital too.
  • Investigations should factor in the kinds of complexities noted above rather than relying on simple explanations rooted in individual behaviour.
  • They should also seek to identify the underlying problems which require remedy, rather than labelling people as victims or perpetrators.
  • Investigators should have suitable training and experience. They should have a broad theoretical understanding of workplace bullying and its impacts.

Finally, the authors outline a protocol to help managers respond to bullying allegations or concerns about problem behaviour at work. This aims to identify the risk of harm and deal with underlying issues. Helpful management action includes setting boundaries and fostering inclusive communication. Managers should follow through by checking outcomes and take formal action if there is no improvement.

Our view on how to deal with workplace bullying
The need for objectivity

The research shows the complexity of situations involving bullying allegations. It underlines the need to keep a ‘360 degree’ view of contributing factors when dealing with them. For us, this supports the use of independent mediators (or for organisations with in-house mediators, an independent co-mediator) for objectivity when using mediation to address bullying.

Scope for early informal action

The call to skill-up managers so they are able to deal well with signs of emerging conflict is a familiar one. The large proportion of cases in this study with organisational issues at their root underlines the scope to tackle problems early. The recommendations on handling bullying complaints also chime with the recent ACAS report (see our blog on this here) which called for the use of formal procedures only as a last resort.

Finding solutions rather than blame

We agree that encouraging people in conflict to identify and resolve specific problems is of greater benefit than a ‘blame framework’. Labelling someone as a ‘bully’ is unhelpful if the aim is to engage them in behaviour-change. As the research highlights, people on the receiving end of complaints are very often unaware of their impact on others. In our experience they are usually willing to respond to requests for change.  Skills coaching can help here too if necessary.

Lessons from Leymann

The behaviours Leymann identified in his concept of ‘unethical communication’ are certainly familiar to us in our work. Showing how they impair someone’s ability to cope illuminates why bullying causes such distress – and the need to deal with it quickly.

The concept also shows how employing organisations can unwittingly contribute to conflict and its effects. In our practice, we often see how ‘procedures’ (formal or otherwise) inhibit communication – both between those involved and with the organisation. It also highlights the importance of creating a respectful, inclusive workplace culture which is alert to interpersonal conflict and its impact.

If you have a bullying allegation on your hands, feel free to call us in confidence (020 3637 9648) to see whether mediation is appropriate.

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