I read an article yesterday that hit so close to home on this topic for me that I almost broke down in tears reading it because it was so dead on with what I’ve experienced with this phenomenon. The author did a qualitative inquiry (meaning, he interviewed people to collect his data as case studies) of 10 women working in the public sector in the UK who had recognized they were being bullied in their jobs to understand the processes they went through during the experience. Here’s what it said.
No good definition
Ideally, there would be a definition of workplace bullying to pull from, but researchers are stumped on this one. There have been attempts to quantify it but overall, scholars suggest that these definitions fail to capture the diversity of the experience. And this lack of definition creates a lot of problems with regards to how issues are addressed. For instance, some researchers have found that managers may attribute the problems the bullying target is experiencing to personal characteristics, all while the target loses social support as the bullying progresses and struggles to maintain his/her own self-esteem. Naming this problem in the workplace would make managers look bad in and of itself. And of course, this ambiguity may also present a problem with regards to individuals recognizing it happening to them.
So no, there’s no good definition. But perhaps the findings of this study can give us some insight. Now let’s get into the results. All of the quotes in this article are pulled directly from the article, and are from the participants in the study.
Minimizing the problem
“It was trivial. It was childish. It was nonsensical. To me, it was immaterial.”
“I’d got to answer the phone because he was not going to, again trivia. Absolute trivia. Shifting the chair out of my room which was comfortable to some hard rock thing that was a back creaser, lots and lots of things that were very much indicative of making my life more and more uncomfortable.”
The first theme identified was that the women in the study could identify problems but they were small at first, like talking over the target, questioning her qualifications, removing information she needed for work. They were a source of stress, but not enough that the women challenged it. Rather, they coped by themselves.
“I had this need to show that I was this very successful working class woman who’d made good. So I couldn’t drop face…I also felt, how can I explain it to anybody, because it was so, in some ways so surreptitious. There was nothing to actually pin down”
“I was desperate to keep it jovial, and didn’t get to the root of things….and that’s me. I find it quite difficult to acknowledge to people I’m finding things difficult at all.”
The participants in the study feared that admitting the problems they were experiencing in their interpersonal relationships would undermine their own sense of competence. They maintained their own self esteem and identify from their successes at work. Being “successful professional women” was important to them and disclosing the problem would threaten not only their position at work, but their own sense of identity.
Conflicting perceptions of organizational values
“I could never have believed that management would aid and abet a bully and a liar because they knew that she was lying and in order to protect her they lied themselves. It would have been much kinder if they’d blindfolded me and shot me at dawn. They took away everything that I ever morally believed in. Everything that I’d given.”
As the bullying progressed, the targets felt dissonance in regards to the values expressed by their organizations and what they were personally experiencing. That resulted in a loss of trust in their organization and managers, and a loss of their own sense of identity, belonging and valued participation at work. They had to re-evaluate their own expectations and their lack of power within it.
Physical problems and sickness
“We thought there was something physically wrong because I was so ill. I was physically ill. When I went through all the tests the doctor said: ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. You either retire or change jobs.’”
The targets in the study reported physical symptoms that are often associated with stress. This was how many of them identified what was happening to them, when their doctors offered the explanation.
Identifying the problem
“I just didn’t think it [workplace bullying] was something that occurred and when you’re a grown mature woman, you know, it came as a bit of a shock really.”
“There was a lot of disbelief, which probably contributed to me not actually doing a great deal to kind of stop it.”
“I just thought possibly I was incompetent. How did I get this far? What was happening in my life? Yeah I just couldn’t understand what was happening at all. When I read that first article [on workplace bullying], it just jumped out at me. That’s what’s the matter.”
“One of the first things they said in the tribunal: When you say that this started, why didn’t you keep a diary about it? And that was their immediate thing. But when you first are in that situation, you don’t think it’s bullying. You think there’s been a disagreement or a misunderstanding. And you wouldn’t dream of immediately getting out a diary and writing a blow by blow account and dating it and signing it.”
Many of the women in the study knew that they categorized the “trivial” behavior they were experiencing as inconsistent with adult behavior and as the situation grew more serious, it rather left them in a state of shock. One participant reporting having her “ah ha” moment after a friend gave her an article to read on the subject. But it was this ultimate recognition that allowed them to begin to recover from it. Remember, prior to that recognition, these events were threatening their own sense of self, which made them internalize it was their own doing. As it escalated, they weren’t able to make sense of it and felt increasing confusion and shock. The recognition of what was happening was a difficult experience, but finding information about bullying helped them to gain perspective.
It’s an organizational problem
Based on the results of the study, and a synthesis of other existing research, the paper concludes that bullying is more of an organizational problem than an individual one. Indeed, many of the participants in the study reported that they regarded their organizations was promoting, rather than merely facilitating, bully and viewed them as ultimately responsible.
So, what happened to them?
Of the 10 interviews completed in this study, only two remained in their job. One took sick leave, one took early retirement, two moved to different jobs, two took sideways moves, one was demoted and one was fired.
Lewis, S. E. (2006). Recognition of workplace bullying: a qualitative study of women targets in the public sector. Journal Of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 16(2), 119-135. doi:10.1002/casp.850