Understanding Bullying in the Workplace
Bullies cause havoc within the workplace much more than is reported or recognized by workers. Some bullies don’t even realize what they are doing when they succumb to the intense desire to control and make life miserable causing their targets to lose their jobs (Nami and Nami, 2009) because they have the power to do so; and because they themselves are miserable. The bully in this case was a co-worker who thought she was my boss. The true bosses (the Police Jury) had not designed a full job description; therefore she usurped authority without definition of that authority. Until recently, I had no conception I had been the target of a bully; but during some research for a newspaper article, I realized what bullying in the workplace was doing to thousands, if not millions of people.
Since communication with a bully is more complicated than a casual tag attached to the problem, interpersonal communication theories help to untangle the difficulties in understanding; and answer several questions to this complicated development in a relationship between two co-workers. Uncertainty Reduction Theory, Social Penetration Theory, and Relational Dialectics help us to understand the communication development, relationship development and then the dissolution of the relationship due to control issues of the bully and trauma of the target.
According to a newsletter for Purdue University supervisors, “June 2005 edition of HRMagazine, the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute defines bullying as repeated nonphysical, health-impairing psychological mistreatment that falls outside discriminatory harassment.” After several years of reflection, I realized I was working with a bully.
Uncertainty Reduction – Information seeking
Due to many factors when starting a new job, one has a need to communicate with workers to reduce uncertainty (Berger, 1979; Berger and Bradac, 1982). The later study posits there are cognitive uncertainties and behavioral uncertainties. “High uncertainty brings with it a concern to reciprocate what the other does, such as exchange like information,” (Turner and West, 2006) When two strangers come together in a work place environment, they will exchange information quickly in order to get to know the other so as to predict future behavior and reduce the uncertainties because there is a need for balance in the environment. The Uncertainty Reduction Theory’s Axiom 5 gives the bully the ammunition he/she needs to begin the War. The axiom states: High levels of uncertainty produce high rates of reciprocity. Low levels of uncertainty produce low levels of reciprocity (Griffin, 2012). The bully uses this tactic in the initial communication exchange to gain deeper personal information in order to use it to his/her advantage by gaining trust of the co-worker (Nami and Nami, 2006).
It seems that I trusted my co-workers because of a commonality: She professed Jesus was in her heart. She prayed every day over the police jury offices, and she had a good knowledge of the Bible. I took her at face value and because of these deeply personal things, I felt close to her and opened up to her. I didn’t recognize the bully nature which I thought only happened on school grounds or play yards.
Social Penetration Theory—Use of information
Any new relationship requires the exchange of information to proceed to the next phase, and the information gathered will determine how “deep” the relationship will go. According to Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor’s Social Penetration Theory, a relationship will become more intimate the more private the information exchanged. Religious convictions are close to the heart of the onion layers (Griffin, 2012 p. 115). SPT also utilizes the reciprocity of self-disclosure as a key element of the theory; and this factor is used by the bully to seek the trust of the target.
When the inner layers of the self are exposed, the target is vulnerable because the deep layers of self-disclosure have developed trust in the bully. Later, when the bully is finally exposed for what he/she is, the depenetration is quick and decisive for the target (which does not agree with SPT), but the bully still has inside information which makes it easy to control the target from a psychological standpoint (Nami and Nami, 2006), and the deep desire to slow down the depenetration which does agree with SPT. There is a dissonance created in the relationship. “Irwin Altman came to the conclusion that privacy and self-disclosure operate in a wavelike/cyclical fashion over time,” (Griffin, 2012, p. 159).
What could possibly explain the communication behavior of the bully? The bully upholds the interpersonal certainty of Berger and Calabrese’s theory (1975) in the relationship because she is seeking to predict the future behavior of her target. The bully uses the open-self posit of Altman and Taylor’s Social Penetration Theory because he is seeking more information to hold his target hostage, so to speak.
“Popular accounts typically also frame bullying as a problem solely involving bullies and their victims (referred to as targets in bullying research)… When bullying involves others beyond the bully and target, and accomplices are part of the mix, viewing bullying as a private two-person conflict oversimplifies how collective voices magnify bully-target power disparity,” (Nami and Lutgen, 2009).
Relational Dialectics – The dynamic knot of contradictions in personal relationships
The above conclusion reveals how the bully establishes the power to control over the target. In Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery’s theory Relational Dialectics the unceasing interaction of opposing predispositions exposes the “general messiness of close personal ties,” (Griffin, 2012). Baxter and Montgomery believe the both/and underlying desires of each communicator will guarantee that messiness. The bully uses these desires to his/her advantage. The external dialectic need for inclusion and seclusion (Griffin, 2010, p. 156) is twisted by the bully as he/she draws the work place community into the closed group while pushing the target out driving a wedge between the workplace community and the target. This removes any support the target may have. “The dialectical forces for transparency and discretion are hard to juggle,” (p. 159) states Baxter and Montgomery’s theory. They evaluate relationships by communication saying “communication creates and sustains the relationship. If a pair’s communication practices change, so does their relationship,” (p. 160). The bully enjoys this struggle and juggle while playing a dangerous game of displacement by moving his/her crime by switching methods of harassment from twisting truth to complete fabrications in written form to back up his/her allegations against the target. An apology can lull the target into false security, thus drawing him/her into a dissonant state of being.
“Workplace bullying is a pattern of hostile messages and abusive behaviors persistently targeted at one or more persons in work settings that can involve work obstruction, public humiliation, verbal abuse, threatening behavior, and multiple forms of intimidation (Namie, 2007a).” Here we see the bully as the director of the workplace drama, feeding upon the target’s basic helplessness. “Similar to whistle-blowing or reporting sexual harassment (Rothschild & Miethe, 1999; Schneider, Fitgerald, & Swan, 1997), when targets speak out, they can be stigmatized, subjected to escalated abuse, or socially ostracized (Keashly, 2001; Namie, 2007a).” Therefore, the power the bully exerts through utterance chains which Baxter regards as the “building block of the construction project of creating meaning through dialogue,” (Griffin, 2012, p. 161) a form of torture which usually ends with the target’s termination from his/her job.
Dealing With Workplace Bullies. (2011). Leading Edition a newsletter for Purdue University Supervisors. Retrieved from http://www.purdue.edu/hr/LeadingEdition/LEdi_705_workplace_bullies.html
Griffin, Em (2012). A First Look At Communication Theory. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Nami, Gary (2009). Still Bullying With Impunity: Labor Day Survey (Research Report. Workplace Bullying Institute). Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/research/articles/N-N-2009D.pdf
Nami, G. and Lutgen, P. E. (2009). Active and Passive Accomplices: The Communal Character of Workplace Bullying. International Journal of Communication 4 (2010), 343-373. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/research/articles/N-PLS-2010.pdf
Nami, G. and Nami, R. (2006) Workplace Bullying Institute, Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbistudies/