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’, published in May, 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:

  • Workplace bullying has been vaguely defined and there is a poor understanding of it in theory and practice in many countries. They say this makes it difficult for employers who have a statutory duty to tackle it effectively.
  • Research into bullying has its origins in the school setting. This has led to the dominance of the idea of victim and perpetrator as a way of understanding it. This idea has tended to be reflected in employment policy. Accordingly, bullying investigations in the workplace look for evidence in that light.
  • However, this way of seeing it has been criticised for ignoring social and organisational influences on behaviour. The argument is that the victim-perpetrator model, with its focus simply on the individuals involved, can result in scapegoating or victim-blaming.

The researchers point to the influential work of psychologist Prof Heinz Leymann. His pioneering 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 should be considered as a process rather than as isolated events, and that those in power at work have a significant influence in that process. This can be in creating, or not tackling, an ‘enabling environment’ for conflict, and in stigmatizing, blaming and excluding victims.

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

The research

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

With practitioners who had investigated complaints of bullying in Swedish workplaces, they analysed 81 real cases to see how applicable the victim-perpetrator model is. They also considered whether Leymann’s approach, particularly the idea of unethical communication, could be applied to understand the cases.

What were the findings?

The researchers themselves 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 straightforward victim-perpetrator model. Further analysis found that most of these cases could be categorised as follows:
    • Those that involved acts of hostility by employees who were not aware of the effect of their behaviour.
    • Those that had been 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, the accused was assessed as having acted improperly but not to the extent of bullying*. Most of these involved either poor staff management, including generalised poor communication and failure to deal with problems, or avoidance of a particular individual by other colleagues.
  • In a quarter of cases, it was assessed that the accused person had not done anything wrong. In some of these, justifiable management action had been interpreted as acts of 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 was judged to have acted inappropriately to varying degrees. This was enough to have warranted their dismissal in 1 in 10 cases. In a very few cases, bullying allegations were considered to have been made as a tactic in a ‘power play’ where the accuser did not accept supervision or boundaries.

(* The predominant 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. However, as they point, out the definition is vague.)

What were the conclusions?

  • All of the cases involved a severe problem whether or not bullying was found.
  • Most cases were complex situations involving several actors and were influenced by organisational problems.
  • At the heart of many cases were problems concerning roles, routines, discretion, supervision, and neglect of problems.
  • They authors argue all of these could be addressed on an organisational level (thus supporting Leymann’s theory).

What were the practical recommendations?

The authors suggest:

  • Managers should receive training in conflict resolution skills so they are equipped to handle 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.
  • Rather than seeking to label people as victims or perpetrators, they should seek to identify the underlying problems which require remedy.
  • Investigators should be experienced and trained with a broad theoretical understanding of workplace bullying and its impacts.
  • Finally, they suggest a protocol for responding to bullying allegations or concerns about problem behaviour at work. This focusses on identifying the risk of harm and dealing with underlying issues. Helpful interventions should emphasise setting boundaries and fostering inclusive communication. Follow-up is necessary to check outcomes and formal procedures should be invoked 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 it.

Scope for early informal action

It adds to the now familiar call for early action to address emerging conflict by appropriately skilled managers. The large proportion of cases judged to have organisational issues at their root shows the scope for this. 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 specific problems and to seek ways to resolve them 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 who are complained about are very often unaware of their impact on others. In our experience they are usually willing to respond to requests for change.  This can be supported with skills coaching 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. The importance of creating a respectful, inclusive workplace culture which is vigilant for interpersonal problems can be seen in this light too.

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.

More where this came from. Not subscribed to our regular blog on conflict at work? Please sign up here to receive our regular mailing.

image of a bright blue sky in londonhand helps fit puzzle piece back in place