Emily Eisenberger says:

The Psychology behind the Workplace Bully

Bullying is a problem in society, but it can be particularly difficult to deal with in the workplace. Bullies can have negative consequences on workplace productivity, the mood and absenteeism of other employees, and even create legal problems for the employer if other employees feel sufficiently harassed or injured. For all of these reasons, those who are studying mental health are beginning to explore the causes, consequences and possible solutions to workplace bullying.

There has been a flurry of research regarding bullies, because of the harm they inflict on society. 35% of American workers reported experiencing bullying first hand. And Psychology Today reported that, “One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200 billion per year.”

Research also shows that bullies are often tolerated in the workplace, because their aggression and intimidation can yield short term results. A harassing boss can often drive employees to produce beyond expectations. But there is a cost to this short term success, as the initial miracle achievement often descends into long-term chaos. Employees who feel bullied often quit, find passive ways to undermine the bully, or become so stressed they take more sick leave than normal. Even worse, studies show that stressed employees perform 50% below non-stressed peers in cognitive tests. In other words, having a bully around can make a department positively “stupefied.”

It is also clear that bullies exhibit a unique form of aggression. When a bully is active in the workplace, management often assumes that it is just a simple personality conflict between individuals. Frequently they blame both parties, the victim and the perpetrator, and impose sanctions and orders to “just get along.” While this may be good advice in the instance of personality conflicts, it can be awful for the victim of the bully, as bullies are remarkably tenacious in continually harassing and mistreating their targeted victims. When management is dealing with a bully, they need to be far more proactive in their actions.

Bullies usually begin showing signs of their behavioral strategy in childhood. While most people are never bullied, or even the victims of bullying, almost everyone has been a witness. The bullies learn to use threats, fear and pain to get their way; and this is repeated and far from normal. And their lives may have some upward phases, for the most part their antisocial behavior leads to a long downward spiral. Boys are more frequently bullies than girls, but the girls are often more subtle and can be even more hurtful in their actions and harder for others to identify.

In terms of the workplace, it is suggested that preventing workplace bullying must be a strategy implemented by management. In many ways, fostering a workplace built on respect rather than strictly results can inhibit and prevent bullies from gaining a foothold. It is also noted that if management implicitly allows mistreatment, it gives permission to bullies and other sorts of unacceptable behavior. Most important, the best way to stop bullying is to never allow it to gain a foothold.

Workplaces with a strong culture of respect and communication are rarely comfortable for bullies, and they will behave appropriately or leave. However, once the bullies gain the upper hand, it is almost impossible to unwind.

Many thanks for your contribution, Emily!

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