What comes to mind when you hear the word bully?
Perhaps you think of a school setting in which one child says to another, "Give me your lunch money, or I'll beat you up." But bullying extends beyond the school playground. Thus, psychologists have recently begun to study the phenomenon of bullying in the workplace.
Most researchers define a "workplace bully" as an employee who behaves in ways that cause harm to targeted co-workers. The motivations behind bullying are diverse. Some bullies are seeking to advance their own positions. Others are more focused on undermining the careers of others. However, in some cases, bullying seems to be more of a manifestation of an individual's personality than a means that he or she has adopted to achieve a particular goal.
The tactics employed by bullies may include yelling and name-calling as well as covert behaviors such as withholding information. In researchers' terminology, "targets" are the unfortunate victims of these behaviors. The institutional relationship between a bully and a target can be of any tipe, but bullying is probably most ovious when bullies are the targets' supervisors. In their book, The Bully at Work, psychologists Gary and ruth Namie (2000) describes four types of "bully-bosses." See if you recognize any of them. (Note that although the Namies developed these types with bosses in mind, they could be applied to organizational leaders or any situation in which one person bullies another.)
According to the Namies, the Constant Critic is often the darling of upper management, thanks to his or her ability to wheedle performance improvements out of supervisees. The Constant Critic's tactics usually include inundating supervisees with massive amounts of information and then criticizing them for their failure to memorize every word of every memo he or she has ever generated. Constant Critics are also known for nitpicking and for making unreasonable, perfectionist demands of those whom they supervise. Predictably, supervisees are often blamed by Constant Critics for their own failures, and most are willing to lie to higher-level managers in order to be certain that the blame falls on the targeted supervisee.
Named for a World War II artillery rocket that emitted a distinctive whining sound before exploding, the Screaming Mimi's behavior often resembles that of their namesake. The sound of a slamming door often announces that the Screaming Mimi is in a volatile mood. This kind of bully-boss intimidates supervisees with angry, foot-stomping outbursts, verbal abuse, and threats. Screaming Mimis also constantly interrupt supervisees during conversations and meetings. These interruptions often take in an hostile tone. Screaming Mimis use intimidating nonverbal behaviors such as violating supervisees' personal space as well. They justify unreasonable demands with statements that are reminiscent of authoritarian parents: "Do it because I'm your boss, and I said so."
A third kind of bully boss, the Gatekeeper, must be in control at all times. Gatekeepers often institute policies that require their approval of all allocations of resources. For example, they may keep frequently needed supplies in a locked cabinet in their offices. When a supervisee requests a new box of paper clips from the Gatekeeper, she is likely to have to listen to a lecture on the cost of paper clips. In addition, Gatekeepers include minor infractions (e.g. "on several occasions Mr. X was more than five minutes late for a meeting") in supervisees' performance evaluations. To intimidate a target, Gatekeepers invoke the "silent treatment" and make it clear that they expect all supervisees to help them isolate the target. A Gatekeeper may also "accidentally" delete a supervisee's name from the department email list. Then, when the "deleted" supervisee misses a meeting, the Gatekeeper reports the infraction to higher-ups with comments such as "How can you expect me to accomplish anything with such irresponsible people in my department?."
The Two-Headed Snake variety of bully-boss uses friendliness to get close to targets. The target of a Two-Headed Snake belives that the Snake is a friend, when, in reality, the Snake often makes disparaging remarks about the target to others supervisees and to higher-level managers. Two-Headed Snakes also also use what the Namies call a "divide and conquer" strategy. They bestow favors on employees who are on the same level as the target for gathering information about the target. For example, a confederate of the Two-Headed Snake might encourage the target to make critical remarks about the supervisor that the confederate then reports back to the Snake.
Working under any type of bully-boss can be extremely stressful. Researchers have found that targets are prone to anxiety and depression. Long-term exposure to bullying tactics may even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2004). Targets may also experience physical symptoms such as frecuent headaches and fatigue (Meyers, 2006).
The targets of bully-bosses often feel helpless because they fear that speaking out will lead to retaliation. Many times, these fears are justified (Cortina & Magley, 2003). Moreover, employees who complain about bullies are often told that they are overly sensitive. In effect, they are told to "get over it." Seeing bully-bosses promoted or given awards only adds to the frustration that many of the targets feel.
According to the Namies, there are some effective coping strategies that the target of a bully-boss can use to regain his or her psychological health. First, say the Namies, targets should give the bullies behavior a name -bullying, intimidation, psychological harassment, or whatever term the target thinks best fits. Second, the target should listen to his or her body's "fight-or-flight" message and do one or the other. The Namies recommend taking time off from work and consulting with a mental health professional in order to decide which option (stay and fight versus move on to another organization) is best. They also recommend that the target use some of this time off to gather data about the impact of the bully-boss behavior in the organization. This data may include information about employee turnover, absenteeism, or stress-related health costs.
Even if the target decides to move on, say the Namies, he or she should present this information to the bully-boss's supervisor. The Namies work with the victims of workplace bullies indicate that those who expose the bully before leaving their jobs recover from the effects of having been bullied more quickly than those who remain silent about their reason for resigning.
The World of Psychology p. 586-7
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