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Home » All, Business, Optimism, Relationships, Resilience, Stress

Towards Positive Relationships with Workplace Bullies

By on November 2, 2009 – 12:27 pm  26 Comments

Catherine Mattice is a consultant who focuses on workplace bullying through her business, NoWorkplaceBullies. She also teaches at National University and ITT Technical Institute. She has appeared on FOX, NBC and ABC as an expert, has published nationwide, and presented her research at the International Association of Workplace Bullying conference.



Outcomes of Workplace Bullying

I was a victim of workplace bullying, along with 70% of the American workforce according to Schat and colleagues. After five years of abuse I’d lost much of my self-esteem and desire to go to work. My thirst for success had drained, and only a tattered piece of paper hanging over my alarm clock that said, “Get up!” motivated me – but not very well. After days of showing up late and a major drop in work product and quality, I was asked to leave the organization. As it turns out my experience is no different than most. According to Namie, 70% of victims are asked to leave their company while only 13% of bullies are disciplined by management.

Now, years later, I am still left with an unanswered question. Why me?

Common Response to Bullying

Unfortunately current academic research and main stream thinking in the area of workplace bullying proscribe this sort of thinking. Rayner and colleagues, for example, warn that “assigning targets a positive role” in bullying may remove focus from bullies and the organizations that reward them; and incorrectly allocate responsibility to the victim. Einarsen posits that “the victim is accidentally in a situation where a predator either is demonstrating power or in other ways is trying to exploit an accidental victim.” Interestingly enough, I have even received emails from other “experts” and counselors who claim my ideas are simply not appropriate.

Bullying as Part of a Relationship

All of us absolutely play an active role in any relationship, whether with a bully or an extraordinarily nice co-worker. Ignoring that fact leaves us with no empowering options when attacked by a tyrant. Communication competence, optimism and resiliency all offer opportunities for us to build a more positive relationship with ourselves and the bullies we battle at work. All three can be learned.

Communication Competence

Communication competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in any given context. That is, a competent communicator has the capacity to get his or her intended point across with messages that are suitable to the situation. During any communication interaction we experience negative (fear) or positive (desire) motivation to actually be competent; and will either posses or lack the knowledge and skills of an adept communicator. The ability to overcome fear is one example, along with assertiveness, facial expressions, appropriate word choice and proficient conflict management. Luckily, competence can be taught.

Optimism

Optimism, a trait that mediates external events and one’s perception of them according to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, may also present an opportunity for targets to develop positive relationships at work. Optimism relates to an individual’s explanation of positive and negative events. Peterson links it to perseverance, success, popularity, and positive mood. Fortunately empirical evidence by Kluemper and colleagues indicates that individuals can also learn optimistic values.

Resilience

Finally, resilient individuals are energetic, curious, and experience positive emotions. Resiliency is about being flexible in stressful experiences and bouncing back when they are over. According to the broaden-and-build theory, negative emotions narrow the options of thought-action and result in wanting to escape fearful situations. According to Tugade and Fredrickson, positive emotions broaden the repertoire and expand the range of behavioral options to include more healthy ones. As such, positive emotions can push out negative responses. This is important to people who are or have been bullied at work because they describe the experience as “feeling ‘beaten,’ ‘abused,’ ‘ripped,’ ‘broken,’ ‘scarred,’ and ‘eviscerated” according to Tracy and colleagues. One can assume, however, that a resilient individual will, in contrast, replace these types of self-destructive assessments with more positive assertive ones.

The Tool Shed
Ultimately, development of tools to facilitate a victims’ quest for positive change at work is imperative as the corporate world continues to ignore workplace bullying and the damage it causes both targets and the organization itself. If we fail to acknowledge the active part targets play in an interaction, they remain helpless bystanders in their own lives. Instead, let’s provide the targets of bullying with the tools needed to develop better relationships with their tormenters.

Positive psychology is the tool shed.
 


 

References

Einarsen, S. (1999). The nature and causes of bullying at work. International Journal of Manpower, 20, 16-27. Quotation is on page 23.

Kluemper, D.H., Little, L.M., & DeGroot, T. (2009). State or trait: effects of state optimism on job-related outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 209-231.

Namie, G. (2003). Workplace bullying: Escalated incivility. Ivey Business Journal Online, Article # 9B03TF09.

Peterson, C. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55, 44 -55.

Rayner, C., Sheehan, M., & Barker, M. (1999). Theoretical approaches to the study of bullying at work. International Journal of Manpower, 20, 11-15.

Schat, A.C.H., Frone, M.R., & Kelloway, E.K. (2006). Prevalence of workplace aggression in the U.S. workforce: Findings from a national study. In E.K. Kelloway, J. Barling & J.J. Hurrell (Eds.), Handbook of workplace violence (pp. 47-89).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Seligman, M.E.P, & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology – An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Tracy, S.J., Lutgen-Sandvik, P., & Alberts, J.K. (2006). Nightmares, demons and slaves: Exploring the painful metaphors of workplace bullying. Management Communication Quarterly, 20, 148-185. See page 160 for specific reference.

Tugade, M.M. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 320-333.

Images
Bullying 1 courtesy of Chesi – Fotos CC
domestic
Bullying 2 courtesy of Chesi – Fotos CC.
Matzuva – Life overcomes adversity courtesy of david55king

26 Comments »

  • Really useful article and agree it is important to recognise the role all parties play in the interaction, getting out of the mind set of victim is a powerful first step in taking back control and developing skills and strategies to improve the situation.

  • Karen Garman says:

    Catherine – Great job tying in the foundations of positive psychology to this important organizational dilemma. While we can all relate to the school yard pictures of bullies in your article, the fact that it is more prevalent in the workplace makes your expertise key to all human resource departments. I would recommend your workshop to any and all who see this happening in the workplace!

  • Catherine,
    Thanks for laying this out so clearly — and for the numbers. I had no idea of the prevalence, nor of the extent of the impact.

    I’ve seen corrosive behaviors in the workplace, along with the devastation they leave behind. According to Jane Dutton in Energize Your Workplace,
    “Corrosive connections are created and sustained by an infinite variety of disrespectful, disabling, untrusting, alienating acts…” A common one is choosing not to share information that can make other people effective — often because information is seen as power. These acts must often be life-shortening in their negative intensity.

    Kathryn

  • Kathleen says:

    Catherine,
    I too work with targets and perpetrators of workplace bullying and find prevailing approaches disempowering for targets and too lenient and forgiving of bullies. So long as we think bullies are simply fearful and/or incompetent rather than responsible for their behavior, then we will be blaming the targets for not empathizing with the bully. Both sides need communication training, boundary setting training, and some opportunities to learn positive thinking and hopefulness. Best of luck to you and keep writing. See you in the trenches.
    Kathleen

  • Marlena Wilson says:

    Ms. Mattice,

    What an interesting article! I never thought about bullying in the work place until now. I am a college student and have yet to get into the “real world” so I found it astounding that adults would even think about bullying each other. Do you have any idea what kind of person a work-bully would target? When I enter the workforce full-time I would like to have a good idea of what kinds of people I need to avoid or stand up to.

    Thank you,

    Marlena

  • Marc says:

    Very interesting. I’ll echo the surprise of the prevalence of bullying in the workplace. I didn’t realize it was that big of an issue.

    Couple questions. I’ll try not to be long-winded.

    1. How is workplace bullying classified? How much of it, perhaps, is simply inherent to the cut-throat/every-man-for-himself nature of the business world?

    2. Without a doubt, optimistic explanatory styles help us deal with/stave off negative effects, such as those from bullying. Pessimistic explanatory styles would exacerbate the effects, through internalization for example. Of those 70% who are asked to leave, would it be safe to assume the majority favors a pessimistic style? Could the reporting of workplace bullying also be reliant upon the person’s explanatory style?

    Thanks,

    Marc

  • Dr_vee says:

    Positive Psychology is a goal worth striving towards for bullies , their targets,and HR. However, this strategy works most effectively when all parties are on the same level. When there exists a bully who is a boss it is unlikely the target will be candid in any effort to improve the abusive relationship. When discussing not just a mean boss but a sociopathic one this strategy does not work since this personality will not be sincere, nor honest. I believe too often on the discussions on this topic the mean bosses are lumped on with the psychopathic bully bosses and they are quite different.

  • Amanda Horne says:

    Catherine

    This is a great article.
    I heard of an experience where the ‘victims’ were not only brought down by their bullying co-worker, but they inadvertently and unknowingly colluded with each and took themselve ‘down’ still further. That is, they talked to each other at length about the problem, they mulled and immersed, thus extending the negative emotions. The Positive Psychology Toolbox gives them tools to be supportive but in a broadening and building way (not a narrowing way).

    Thanks!
    Amanda

  • WJ says:

    Catherine, I have seen some research on turnover intentions when exposed to a bullying boss. Not surprisingly the intention to leave increased when exposed to a bullying boss – if you were prepared to suck up to the boss it didn’t. Interestingly if you had higher levels of positive affect the presence of a bullying boss didn’t impact on your intention to leave ie you didn’t have to resort to sucking up to the boss.

  • Marc,

    Thanks for the great questions…

    In response to your first question, I think I’ll start with a definition. Workplace bullying is ongoing and unwanted negative acts that result in some degree of psychological harm to the target(s) and witnesses, as well as the organization. A power imbalance ultimately forms between the bully and his or her target(s), and the latter fails to engage in “self-defense”. Bullying behaviors include sabotage, uber-exessive micromanagement, using threats to manage, arbitrary and inconsistent punishment, ridicule, assigning work above or below competence, taking away important responsibilities to ones job (for no reason other than to hurt them), consistent reminding of past mistakes, leaving one out of important communications, intimidation, taking credit… the list goes on and on. That being said, in an organization where cut-throat/every-man-for-himself behavior is allowed to thrive bullying behaviors will most certainly develop, intensify, and become harder and harder to eradicate.

    Is bullying simply cut-throat behavior? Could be. Does that mean it should be allowed in the workplace? No.

    I’d like to add that just like sexual harassment, bullying is perceived. If you work on a team of 5 people, for example, and one tells an off-color joke, 3 might laugh while the fourth becomes upset, feels harassed, and reports it to management. The same applies here with one difference – sexual harassment is illegal and therefore the complaint will be acted upon. Bullying is much more under the radar, harder to prove, and without laws that prohibit it.

    In response to your second question – great point! Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my article, researchers have stayed away from really looking at targets so I don’t have an official answer. I think there is a fear of blaming the victim if we were to focus too much on them. Of course, blame is not my intention – but pointing out that targets do play a role in the transactional process of a communication interaction is. “The role of the victim is created and maintained by means of communication” (see reference). Of course, explanatory style falls right there, and is something that hopefully will be researched further.

    Check out one of my favorite articles for more on the role of communication: Pörhölä, M., Karhunen, S., & Rainivaara, S. (2006). Bullying at school and in the workplace: A challenge for communication research. In C. Beck (Ed.). Communication Yearbook 30 (pp. 249-301).

  • Amanda, I agree with you… here’s a stat you’ll find interesting. The Canadian Safety Council reported that targets spend 52% of the workday talking about being bullied. That’s a lot of mulling around in negative “stuff” when the focus should perhaps be more on some of the things positive psychology has to offer.

  • Marc says:

    Catherine,

    Thank you for your response. Very interesting stuff!

    I’ll have to take a look at that article you mentioned when I get a chance.

  • Kathleen,

    Definitely – bullies, targets and all organizational members could benefit from training in conflict resolution, negotiation, interpersonal communication, assertiveness, empathy, stress management, leadership, optimism, self-examination… the list goes on and on. Of course, expectations regarding proficiency in the areas should be tied to performance and career advancement, and show up in employee goals and rewards programs in order for the training to be effective.

    You may find my whitepaper, 7 Steps to a Bully Free Workplace, interesting since you mentioned training. http://noworkplacebullies.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/7_Steps_to_a_Bully-Free_Workplace___Whitepaper.152213325.pdf

    I checked out your website and am happy to see a coach, as opposed to a counselor, offering assistance to targets and bullies. My focus in my own business has been quite a bit on changing the organizational culture – Perhaps we will work together sometime! Have you joined the International Association of Workplace Bullying & Harassment?

  • Marlena,

    Glad you found the article interesting… and you’re not alone. Most people don’t think about it unless they’ve experienced it or know someone who has. I’m often met with, “Hmmm… workplace bullying? I don’t know what that means.” Now you’ll be more prepared when you do come across it!

    In response to your question about the types of people bullies might target – bullies bully everyone. Then, based on the way people respond the bully will continue harassing those that give the “green light” with their own communication, and stop harassing those that make it clear they will not tolerate it. Bullies are also cautious about how they communicate with the people in the organization that can help them rise through the ranks – and of course will not bully them.

    What little research there is on targets posits that there is a connection between having been bullied as a child and later in life… a sign that being a target and communicating as a target is a learned behavior. Targets may also be shy, have a low threshold for negativity, lack conflict management/assertiveness skills, have low self-esteem, demonstrate learned helplessness, and as Marc pointed out probably have a pessimistic explanatory style.

    Interestingly it would appear that targets are generally extremely high producers, which is a main reason they are singled out as targets. They pose a threat to the bully simply because they are so good at what they do. However, one could also claim that overachievers are often compensating for lack in self-esteem…

    Hope this helps.

  • WJ –

    I love it! Any idea where you saw that research? I’d love to read it. Thanks!

  • WJ says:

    Catherine – reference is The Leadership Quarterly, Vol 18, 2007, 264-280

  • Lisa Gordon says:

    Hello, Catherine:

    I am a former clinical psychology graduate student (ABD) well informed about positive psychology. I’ve also been targeted by more than one workplace bully, ultimately resulting in the loss of my dissertation data and PhD.

    My experiences are not in line with your characterization of a target, frankly. I am self-confident, assertive, but very cooperative. In work settings in which I was not bullied, I am viewed as excelling at my job, as having excelllent communication and people skills, and being fair-minded and hard-working. In fact, I’ve had supervisors praise me in particular for my fine communication skills, and I’ve been hired specifcally because of my warmth, my positive outlook, and my ability to manage people well. I’m eternally optimistic, and I’ve forgiven the woman who bullied me at the university (and the couple others I’ve run into since then). I have a deep, profound spirituality and engage in contemplative prayer. And, for the most part, I very much like positive psychology. However, my experiences of being bullied have displayed for me a few areas in which positive psychology may not necessarily be the answer.

    For example: I had several conversations with the woman supervisor who bullied me at the university (I was her research assistant). I had written down specific ways to phrase the issue positively, had practiced them, and was careful to help her feel secure about herself and focus on her own positive attributes, which were, in fact, many; when she claimed not to be aware of the negative behaviors she was engaging in (which included work sabotage, by the way), I said that was certainly possible, but was firm with her in communicating that greater awareness of her communication style would help alleviate the problem. I had 2 or 3 quite rational, positive conversations with her in this manner over a period of several months about the bullying.

    Nothing happened as a result–except that she went “covert” with the work sabotage and became overtly friendly. I found tampered documents with her handwriting on them, documents removed from packets she was required to sign off on, that were then bounced back to me (and I had proof this was so due to saved e-mails showing the packets were complete when delivered, by e-mail, to her), freshly recopied files replacing dog-eared ones, with errors inserted in critical places. In addition, all my duties were taken away from me and given to others, and I was asked to file, despite the fact I was the project manager and the duties I had been hired to fill were given to younger students who I was, in fact, supposed to supervise (I was in my late 40s at the time, as I’d gone back to grad school to start a 2nd career). But in front of others (especially superiors), my supervisor was newly polite and sweet, simply dropping the overt attempts to humiliate and denigrate that had previously occurred in her communication style. In other words, all that was accomplished is that she “went underground” with the bullying.

    What positive psychology fails to recognize is the existence of the socialized psychopath. Would you recommened commuications-skills training to a serial killer and his or her victim? Would greater ability to positively communicate with a serial rapist prevent the rape?

    My experiences have taught me that there are sub-clinical cases of psychopathy in our society, often in positions of authority, and that people who suffer from such are not amenable to the communications of those they’ve chosen to target. Think of the “Wall Street sharks” who are incredibly charming, successful, and in positions of authority–but are clearly narcissitic, morally bankrupt, and concerned only with self-gain. Now think about types of psychopathic criminals: some are insterested in monetary gain, just like the Wall Street “socialized” version, while some–the serial rapists and murderers, are interested in sadistic torment as a means to control. It appears that there are similar sadistically oriented socialized psychopaths as well, but they exist in workplaces and target others for the end-game of sadistic power and control.

    I have come to recognize that socialized psychopaths exist and that they lack human empathy and ethical boundaries. Certainly, there are non-psychopathic bullies, too, and they are likely far greater in number than the psychopathic version; I have no fear of them and can work at jobs with people in that category, having done so in the past. Small humiliations don’t bother me; sabotaging my work so that cause for termination exists is something, however, that no one can honestly fight, except in the standard methods recommended by other bullying experts.

    I realize that in some cases, your recommendations would to a world of good, and I encourage you to continue the good work you have accomplished. There are many who can benefit from your advice. There are targets who do lack self-esteem, who do see the world negatively. And there are bullies who are not psychopathic or seriously personality disordered, but who instead are simply deeply insecure. But I might recommend one caveat: to acknowledge that some cases of bullying, albeit a small porportion of them, may in fact be the result of psychopathic personality traits, and are thus not amenable to the techniques you recommend. In other words, positive psychologists would not see fit to tell a rape victim or a victim of child abuse or domestic violence that all they need to do is communicate more effectively and have better self-esteem. By the same token, those bullies who exist on the psychopathic continuum (as all personality disorders are on a continuum of severity, of course), are not amenable to the techniques of positive psychology.

    My best to you in the work you are doing–

    Lisa E. Gordon

  • Lisa,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. While I am an expert in workplace bullying, admittedly I am not well versed in positive psychology – and this article is the only one, to my knowledge, that juxtaposes the two. As such, any conversation around the merits of doing so, or lack thereof, are welcomed wholeheartedly.

    I became interested in positive psychology as a result of conversations with one of my mentors and great friend, who studied with Martin Seligman during his pilot positive psychology masters program at the University of Pennsylvania (I think I have that right). She and I have had many conversations about this subject, and what interested me the most about positive psychology was that it seemed to offer empowering options for targets of workplace bullying.

    I am very excited about this notion because, to date, much of the research on workplace bullying claims that targets are accidentally in the situation, their personalities are irrelevant, and targets are eradicated from any role in the process. I have a problem with these ideas because they claim the target plays no part in the situation they find themselves in. And, I just cannot bring myself to believe that during an interaction between two people one person is simply an innocent bystander. In any communication transaction all parties are actively involved and certainly play a role in the exchange, whether with a bully or an extraordinarily nice co-worker. Having said that, I must reiterate that in no way am I blaming the target, claiming it is his or her fault, or that he or she deserves the abuse.

    What I am saying, however, is that I believe researchers should cease in their fear of placing blame on targets, and figure out what is different between someone who self-identifies as a target and someone who does not. For example, Jennifer and her team (2003) reported that one-third of their participants were actually bullied, but only one-fifth of them identified themselves as targets of the bully. Certainly there is “something” different between those who said, “I am being bullied” and those who said, “That person’s kind of a jerk but it doesn’t bother me very much.” As someone who self-identified as a target, I can’t help but ask myself, “What was the difference between me and the people around me who also complained about the bully, but didn’t let it get to them the way I let it get to me?” To take it a step further, what’s the difference between someone who has the strength to walk away from a situation of domestic violence and someone who does not? Even the army is looking at determinants of post-battle PTSD versus post-battle enhanced leadership skills (http://blogs.pitch.com/plog/2009/08/new_army_program_aims_for_post.php).

    I believe the answers to these questions are important to know so they can be shared with targets of any abuse, and may be somewhere in the field of positive psychology.

    You asked the question about communication skills training and whether that would prevent a serial killer or rapist from attacking. The answer is no, if there is no relationship. So, for example, if a rapist targets a woman with whom he had no prior relationship, there probably isn’t any communication skills training that could save her. But, when there is a relationship, like in a domestic violence situation, the answer is absolutely – you can teach communication that would prevent abuse. For example, research on domestic violence indicates that there are two things a woman in an abusive relationship might say that will most certainly result in an attack: 1) claim she is leaving and 2) insult her abuser’s manhood. If we can teach women in DV relationships that they should not say either of those things, I think that is worthwhile. (I don’t have a citation for you here, unfortunately. I spent some time trying to find one quickly but couldn’t. The information came from a personal conversation with Dr. Brian Spitzberg, who coined the term “dark side of communication” and is an expert in stalking and domestic violence in the field of communication. I can get the citation from him if you are interested.) But, because rape and domestic violence are physical abuse and bullying is psychological, it may not even be fair to compare the two… something to look at in further research.

    Perhaps you are right; sabotaging work is something you may not be able to fight, except in the traditional methods recommended by myself and other experts. Keep documentation, tell human resources in story format (and sans emotion if you can because HR doesn’t respond well to them), and ultimately leave the organization if you find no recourse. It sounds like you did everything you could to deal with your bully and I commend your efforts. I praise your ability to talk to the bully about her behavior in an attempt to work through it. I believe many targets would not do that – I certainly never had the courage to.

    In the end, we have much to learn about the phenomenon of workplace bullying and probably positive psychology. I can only hope, like any researcher, that anything I discover with regard to the two will provide practical advice for targets and the managers who must work to eradicate the behavior from their workplaces. Thanks so much for your encouragement.

    Reference:
    Jennifer, D., Cowie, H., & Ananiadou, K. (2003). Perceptions and experience of workplace bullying in five different working populations. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 489-496.

  • Lisa,

    Jane Dutton, author of Energize Your Workplace and one of the leaders in the Positive Organizational Scholarship field, devotes a chapter of that book to dealing with corrosive connections. She writes, “Typically instigators of corrosive connections have more power than their partners in the relationship. Corrosive connections with those in authority or with power over you can be particularly damaging…” and “Often, corrosive behavior may be an offshoot of a flexing of power, and the offending party may be oblivious to the damage that ensues. … people in higher-power or status positions may find it difficult to see their causal role in creating corrosiveness, and they may be less motivated to remedy this destructive pattern.” (Energize Your Workplace, pp. 110-111).

    This is just to argue that positive psychology and its related field, positive organizational scholarship, don’t deny the existence of mean-spirited or even psychopathic behavior. It exists. For the victims, it is painful. It is humiliating. It is destructive, not just to the individual, but also to the organization.

    The rest of the chapter is about how to recognize corrosive behaviors — and then strategies for dealing with them. Many of the strategies are internal to the victim — bounding and buffering, buttressing and strengthening, for example.

    Like you, I’ve tried the direct approach — calling the person on what I considered bullying behavior — with limited success. Sometimes the best outcome that can occur is some level of self-protection. There are some relationships that just can’t be fixed…

    I guess I’m just asking you not to generalize about what positive psychology does or does not suggest in these cases. Positive psychology is the study of what goes right in life and why — it’s not the denial of what goes wrong.

    Kathryn

  • Jeff says:

    Kat,

    Why are people so threatened by PP? I hear the same denial themes repeatedly. It is old news…Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Sesame Street, Grandma and others have already discovered this stuff. PP states the obvious. PP is touchy feely but can’t produce “the goods” as in higher productivity, calm, peace, serenity etc. PP makes a culture limp and ineffective.

    Negative Psychology is so attractive and widespread. Why do you think that is so? (If you agree that NP is pervasive).

    Jeff

  • Kathryn,

    Your comments about bounding and buffering remind me of another great book to read: Why is it always about you? by Sandy Hotchkiss.

    Her advice includes knowing yourself and understanding your feelings, embracing the reality you are in, and setting mental and relational boundaries.

    Great read.

    Catherine

  • Lisa Gordon says:

    Catherine and Kathryn:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well-reasoned responses to my post. As I stated before, I do appreciate and agree with so very much of what positive psychology has to say. One thought I’ve had, however, is that my own spiritual deepening has always been due to an embrace of suffering in my life; not, and this is important, a wallowing in it–much more in the direction of a zen-like recognition that the pain is there, it exists, and must be embraced as fully as the joy of any given moment is. Throughout my bullying experiences, I never felt my spirit or self-esteem to be threatened; I quickly let go an any anger that resulted, and have for a long while felt compassion for those who engaged in the bullying behavior. Yet I’ve seen that what seemed to drive the bullying was the fact that I achieved some professional recognition that the person who bullied me envied.

    I am at peace with myself over how I handled what happened. I still connect deeply with the joy of life, and this is despite losing my career along with my PhD, and having been laid off from two subsequent jobs, losing my house, and suffering serious neurological health issues. I have self-reflected innumerable times about the bullying, and have asked quite honest questions about my own interactions with my supervisor. Three and a half years later, I continue to self-reflect, always aware that there may be something I haven’t seen before. Having been an active member of a Christian website focused on bullying, I can honestly say that some of the wisest, most compassionate individuals I’ve ever encountered are those who have been the targets of bullying. And they seem to do a lot of self-reflection, once they let go of the anger (a necessary first step).

    As far as domestic violence goes: I was once briefly married to a verbally abusive man. Yes, it is true you can talk someone down from the abuse–I in fact did so on numerous occasions with my ex-husband. However, the amount of psychic energy it takes to do so can be depleting, just as the amount of psychic energy it takes to exist in a bullying workplace can be spritually and psychologically depleting. And that “talking-down” ability is not foolproof, as mis-steps can inadvertantly occur due to any number of factors not within one’s control, such as a thorough knowledge of the other’s background, and stumbling on a personal trigger that one had no knowledge of. In the end, I think the healthiest position is that in which one recognizes that there are always unknown variables out there that may prevent successful communication in any given situation–although one should always try. A number of the folks on the Christian bullying website have also managed to exist for a good while in bullying situations due to their communicative skills and ability to construct solid boundaries. Yet eventually, such difficult relationships take their toll and are often best left behind.

    I was never bullied at a workplace until I turned 50, so I spent most of my life working well and happily with both co-workers and supervisors. It was only when my own sense of self became, in fact, even more confident, sound and healthy that I was bullied–an odd twist, it would seem. Yet that is the case. And from my interactions on the Christian bullying website, I know that many folks (not all, but many) who have been bullied seem to be filled with a level of compassion, wisdom, and warmth that in truth astounds me. I would say that many of them, too, would agree with most of the tenets of positive psychology.

    In the end, my own conclusion in regard to how one should approach a person whose bullying appears to arise from a more psychopathic personality style is the phrase “containment with compassion.” Sometimes, there are people one runs into who are not responsive to the best communicative efforts, and containing the violence they do in the most compassionate manner possible is what seems to be the most gentle and humane approach.

    I briefly corresponded with Seligman (4 or 5 e-mails only), and some of my comments on positive psychology are based on that brief correspondence, wherein I talked about the value of embracing one’s suffering as well as one’s joy, a yin-and-yang view. It was one area where I had some disagreement with his view, at least as I understood it at that time. I also receive the positive psychology e-mail newsletter, although I admit I haven’t read it much recently. So his views may have changed to some degree since that very brief correspondence with him. I’m no expert in positive psychology, but I’ve done a workshop and read a bit, and as I said, had this brief correspondence. I do think self-reflection is always in order for everyone in any situation, including bullying ones. The Namis recommend it, in fact, as they see some of the same possible problems that you’ve mentioned. So I’m certainly in agreement that self-reflection is a good thing for all parties in a bullying incident or environment. It’s just that I’ve come to view some instances as involving personalities who are so injured and other-objectifying, it is virtually impossible to communicate effectively with them.

    Thanks again for this opportunity to share views.

    –Lisa

  • Lisa,

    Right back at you – thank you again for the comments and very thoughtful points made in your correspondence.

    One final comment… while I never like to offer advice to targets that includes, “Maybe it’s time to find another job”… your comments justify why sometimes that may be the appropriate answer. Ultimately, a person could very well be strong-willed, confident, competent at communicating and setting boundaries, etc, etc – but it may just not be enough. Doing all of those things can be mentally and physically exhausting, and when the organization seems to turn its back (which happens often), it can become even more so. Removing yourself from the situation in order to become well again is sometimes the answer. As for me, the day I left my organization I, quite literally, felt the monkey crawl down off my back. Physically, not figuratively.

    My business focuses on helping organizations adjust their corporate culture to one that is positive and healthy, thereby eradticating the opportunity for bullying behaviors to flourish. Getting at the root cause of the organization is helpful, but even then everyone has to be on board. Despite my business being focused on management consulting, I am always seeking information about how targets can avoid becoming so crushed by their co-worker’s behavior.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comments and for sharing so much of yourself with me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as a society or even a species, we could someday come to a point where we didn’t have to talk about bullying at all? I know… that’s awfully optimistic 🙂

  • Lisa Gordon says:

    Catherine: Yes, that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? And what we all hope for and strive for. I myself am planning, once our financial affairs are in better shape, to work towards helping institute anti-bullying laws similar to those established in the UK and parts of Canada.

    And I hope you don’t mind if I share this final bit of information with you, as it helps explain my caveats in regard to positive psychology and bullying:

    The woman who bullied me began the bullying two years into my employment (a previous target was fired; I was “next in line”). Prior to this point, everyone in our department believed I was the perfect research assistant for her–including myself–as she was known as “difficult” and many were amazed at how well I got along with her.

    And here is the great irony:

    She had a master’s degree in organizational psychology (although her PhD was in another field).

    And she began her new pattern of bullying me just before our research team commenced on a study using Appreciative Inquiry–which is, as you know, a positive psychology approach to organizations–in medical settings.

    She was a co-investigator on the Appreciative Inquiry study. She sat right next to me all during the Appreciative Inquiry workshop we both attended prior to heading into the field, despite the fact she already had begun a sudden and swift campaign of harassment. You can imagine how much like “Twilight Zone” this was for me.

    Finally, it was to the principal investigator of the Appreciative Inquiry study that I finally took my evidence, after the many attempts to stop the bullying failed. He was–and is–a kind man, whom I still admire greatly. But his response to me was “So have you examined what you’ve done to help create this situation?” And then he refused to even look at the evidence of work sabotage that I’d collected, which was copious and quite compelling (including photographic evidence of a work roster board in my supervisor’s office showing that all my Project Management duties had been given to others in order to “punish” me for both achieving recognition in the department and for politely declining to twist the truth in a scientific paper based on our work in order to enhance its publishability, when she had pushed me to do so).

    Given the above incredible ironies, the sense of bifurcated reality was overwhelming.

    Still, I don’t dwell on those things; in fact, it wasn’t until yesterday that I thought to myself, “Gee, I ought to mention how ironic my own situation was.” But there it is.

    In the end, living life fully and with joy is what’s at the heart of working through any experience of bullying, as you seem to have accomplished for yourself in your quite positive and life-affirming decision to start your own business. I’ve truly enjoyed sharing insights with you, and I’m glad someone like you, who has experienced bullying first-hand, is at work helping others change their work environments as much as is possible. I’m sure you’ve already made quite a difference in the lives of many within organizations you’ve consulted for.

    May your good work go on–

    –Lisa

  • Majorshadow says:

    Song Title: “STAND”
    Subject: Dealing with spiteful people
    Hear it at URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3MxZcls24o

  • abby says:

    bullying hurt and i know because i get bullyed really bad at my school over hills middle school. people throw things at me too and it hurts a lot.

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