The Role of Bystanders in Workplace Bullying

by Jul 18, 2012

Bystanders play an important role in the process of workplace bullying because they have the power to help end it by standing up to the bully or reporting it to management. Sadly, often this does not happen and bullying is allowed to persist, many times for as long as five years (although targets usually quit after about two).

In addition, research definitely supports the fact that bystanders are troubled by the bullying they witness at work, and that their job satisfaction, loyalty to the company, production, and work quality all decline while their anxiety and fear increase. (Just one more reason managers should be focused on building a positive workplace, as if they didn’t already have enough.)

After returning from making my own presentations at the International Association for Workplace Bullying & Harassment, I thought I’d provide some insight into some of the things I learned there about bystanders.

Becky Byrn-Schmid presented her research on motivational factors for intervening or not intervening, and found the top reason people intervene is affiliation. She surmises that “administrators believe developing and maintaining cooperative teams is important enough to intervene”. Bystanders might also intervene because they believe it is their role and important to getting the job done. On the other hand, bystanders might not intervene because they see no evidence that bullying is occurring, have no support from management to assist in ending the bullying, do not have enough confidence in themselves to intervene, or are concerned it will create more conflict.

The winners of best paper, Sabrina Salamon and Sally Maitlis, delivered a presentation from research conducted by observing the lifespan of a group of undergraduates who met every week over the course of two school semesters. For eight months, they watched the class interact from behind a one-way mirror, and observed a gradual process of victimization that was institutionalized by the group and ultimately turned into what we would normally classify as “mobbing”. Mobbing is defined as a group of people targeting one person, such as in the case of Phoebe Prince; different than workplace bullying where one person is targeting one or more people. In either case, the mob or bully seek to ultimately eliminate the target from the group through employment termination or forcing him or her to quit. The researchers here, however, noticed that in this case the target became a scapegoat for the group – and therefore they did not want him to leave. When things went wrong, they had someone to blame.

One of the main causes of the aggression in this case was a lack of structure in the course, in that the course had no syllabus, no assignments, and no tests; students were left to create their own course and thus learn about group dynamics by ultimately reflecting on the dynamics of this group. The conclusion that lack of structure may have caused the aggression to occur further supports what researchers have already concluded: ambiguity is often correlated with aggression at work. Here, the scapegoat recommended that the class develop structure for themselves and ultimately was attacked for it, despite his classmate’s recognition that this was indeed a good idea.

The researchers also noticed that scapegoating brought the rest of the group together. Despite all the ambiguity, coming together to pick on one person provided a steady commonality to cling to.

Based on her research on bystanders, Maryam Omari and colleague offered insight into how to help bystanders come to a point where they might intervene and save not only the target but their own sanity and the workplace. They recommend that bystander education have three objectives: describing how to recognize bullying behaviors, enlightening bystanders that silence essentially legitimizes the bullying, and providing information on the role bystanders play and how to help stand up to bullies while protecting themselves.

Ultimately, I always advocate for training for everyone in the organization, along with many other action items that would allow a healthy workplace to flourish. Training should never be solely about workplace bullying and how to stop it – it should always involve information about recognizing, demonstrating and rewarding positive behaviors. A focus on the problem will only serve as a band-aid. Managers must focus on the well-being of the entire organization in order for any proposed solutions to actually work.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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