Business Psychology

Article No. 357
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Bullying at Work

New understandings of workplace bullying emerge from recent research.

In recent years, social psychologists have improved our understanding of workplace bullying by focusing on the victims of bullying and the groups in which they work. This focus away from the individual bully to the social setting has offered both new understandings of bullying and new ways to combat it. Jaclyn Jensen from DePaul University has made the most recent contribution.

Jensen investigated the performance level of victims, the kinds of abuse they experienced, the range of performance within their work groups (from lowest performer to highest), and two victim attitudes: "benevolence" and "entitlement." She described a benevolent attitude as a person who is more interested in giving in social relationships than receiving. The presence of this attitude enables a person to be sensitive and responsive to the frustrations of others. She contrasts benevolence with an attitude of "entitlement." With an entitled attitude, people are more interested in receiving in their social relationships than giving, and they fail to notice or appreciate the feelings of others.

When people come together at work and form task groups, they bring social needs with them, and they depend upon these groups to fill these needs.

They need, for example, to have everyone contribute to accomplish the group's tasks. Free-riders sow discord.

They need to feel liked and to like others. Friends at work are highly valued, and people look forward to seeing their friends.

They need to feel worthwhile. High-achieving employees in a group challenge the self-concepts of more average employees who are not as smart or educated or as favored by the boss.

Finally, they need to succeed. Groups have important work to do, and when below average employees can't keep up, it endangers the group's success.

Jensen studied 62 work groups of a large Midwestern financial services firm with a total of 576 employees. She watched for the emergence of bullying, she found it, and she learned important lessons about conditions that favor it and ones that discourage it.

Bullying emerged when group members varied a great deal in their performance. When this occurred, high performers experienced covert aggression and low performers experienced overt aggression.

Covert bullying included silent, hidden acts like withholding critical information, sabotage, and getting "the silent treatment." Overt bullying included angry confrontations, yelling, and physical aggression, like hitting.

Bullying served to "adjust" performance levels, lowering it for high performers and raising it for low performers. At least, that was its intent. Jensen's measurements revealed that the performance of low performers experiencing bullying did not improve, it declined. She didn't measure a decline in performance of high performers, but she believes there was a negative impact.

Jensen discovered that a benevolent attitude eliminated bullying for high performing employees.

When high achieving employees had a benevolent attitude toward co-workers, they experienced neither overt nor covert bullying. Unfortunately, a benevolent attitude did not help low performing employees. She found that such employees continued to experience bullying, and she wondered if supervisors may be partly to blame.

Low performers are a frustration for supervisors, and bullies in a group may feel they have the boss' blessing to use bullying tactics to lift a poor performer's performance.

Finally, Jensen found the most overt bullying directed at people with "entitled" attitudes, and it didn't matter if they were high or low performers. The attitude of entitlement provokes bullying.

If you replace the term "bully" with "enforcer," then you will begin to grasp the new understanding of bullying that is emerging in current research. The bully may seem to be a villain, and he certainly is an unsavory character as he does his work, but he is merely putting into action the desires and needs of the group and its supervisor. He is a social enforcer following the rule that painful lessons are the ones best learned. The bully supplies the pain. Unfortunately, reducing the performance of employees is not in the best interests of a business, and that hurts everyone.

Jensen's work gives owners an opportunity to implement social engineering principles in their businesses to prevent a problem from emerging in the first place. You can discourage workplace bullying by exercising care as you assign people to work groups being careful not to create groups with a large difference between high and low performers, and you can encourage everyone to adopt "benevolent" attitudes at work, especially high performers who are experiencing bullying.

Low performers may need your special compassion. Their low performance triggers the abuse, and it's not going to improve. A vicious cycle may unfold that will make life miserable for them. Also, entitled attitudes provoke abuse, and you can watch for this attitude and correct it when you recognize it.

Reference: Jensen, Jaclyn M., Pankaj C. Patel, and Jana L. Raver (2014) Is it Better to Be Average? High and Low Performance as Predictors of Employee Victimization. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 99, No. 2, 296-309.

© Management Resources

Keywords: Employee conduct, Abuse, Bullying, Entitlement, Victimization, and Aggression. Consult Subject Index for related research.

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