Why Bullying Happens at Work: Transforming Research with a Transactional Model

by Jul 16, 2012

Today’s workers face the costs of insecurity and incivility. Indeed, an abundance of research indicates bullying is prevalent in the workplace and invites serious damaging consequences for victims, observers, and the organization – including depression, reduced quality of work, increased absenteeism and turnover, and resulting loss to the bottom line.

Scholars agree that bullying is caused by a variety of factors working together that ultimately include organizational factors, and target and bully personality and predisposition. Relatively few models however, have addressed the role targets play in the process of bullying and most even advise against taking such perspectives. For example, Einarsen (1999) 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” (p. 23). Leymann (1992, 1996) notes that victim personality is irrelevant and that work conditions are the primary cause of aggression. Rayner, Sheehan and Barker (1999) warn that designating targets a role in the process of bullying may remove focus from bullies and the organizations that reward them; and incorrectly allocate responsibility to the victim. Salin (2003) purports that the individual and organization exert influence on each other thereby eradicating the victim of any role in the process of bullying at work.

Certainly blaming victims is unprincipled, but ignoring the active role they play in a relationship with a co-worker is erroneous and precludes victims from taking empowering action against their abusers.

We need a fresh and more realistic view than current scholarship offers and should explore bullying as an ongoing relationship and communication transaction rather than a one-sided exchange. Organizational norms and stressors, culture, and colleagues are ongoing factors in the process of bullying rather than antecedents.

As businesses continue to ignore the problem of bullying at work, it becomes particularly important that we arm victims with the resources needed to successfully maneuver through work. Counseling (read: reactive) is not the answer, communication competence is (read: proactive). But we cannot provide these tools without a more ingenuous understanding of the phenomenon – and one that advocates victim accountability and empowerment. This provides the opportunity to develop tools to facilitate a victims’ own quest for positive change at work.

Otherwise, the victim remains a helpless passerby in his or her own life.

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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