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 BullyingUnfortunately 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 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.
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.
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.