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Feb 25 2010

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The science of bullying

By Kenneth Westhues, TimesOnline

It was only a matter of time before accusations of bullying would surface from Number 10 Downing Street, targeting even the Prime Minister. Buckingham Palace may be next. Over the past two decades, articles about bullying in The Times have leapt from about 200 to about 1300 per year. The increase is similar in other British and American newspapers.

Bullying is an ancient word, but today’s anti-bullying movement is just a few decades old. The schoolyard was its initial focus. Policies designed to make children play nice are now widespread. Workplace bullying is the more recent concern. Has anybody not seen “The Devil Wears Prada”? A “Respectful Workplace Policy” is all the rage these days in universities, hospitals, and the public service.

What does the current preoccupation with bullying have to do with science? Not much. Like harassment, psychological violence, intimidation, and abuse, bullying is an epithet of office politics. What it means is mainly in the eye of the accuser. Calling someone a bully is often a way of speaking power to truth. If the label can be made to stick, the accuser’s stock rises and that of the accused plunges in the economy of workplace rewards.

Yet evidence abounds of degradation in schools and workplaces so real, extreme and indefensible as to offend even a cynic’s sense of right and wrong. Humiliation at work can and does lead to suicide, depression, heart attack, stroke, family breakdown, and many lesser ills. Targets may even lash back, go postal, shoot the place up, but this is very rare.

Next June in Cardiff, hundreds of social scientists will gather for the Seventh International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment. To judge by the earlier conferences, many attendees will bring mainly the good intentions with which the road to hell is paved. Many others will report on disciplined efforts to make scientific sense of why people at work sometimes act cruelly toward superiors, subordinates, or peers.

I am among the specialists on nastiness in the academic workplace, an area of study for which one needs a wide-angle lens. Bullying flourishes in universities, as the UK blogspot, bulliedacademics, routinely documents. Criteria for distinguishing good work from bad are ambiguous. Most professors are personally invested in their work. On account of tenure and union protections, few targets of collegial hostility can be quickly fired; they must instead be slowly tortured out of their jobs. Despite nominal adherence to rules of reason and evidence, academics feel the same elemental preference as other mortals for people of their own kind – in ethnicity, race, language, social class, sex, age, and sexual orientation.

I am also among those researchers who avoid the word bullying, finding it too vague and imprecise for scientific purposes. Following the Swedish psychologist, Heinz Leymann, I study “workplace mobbing,” the ganging up of managers and/or coworkers against a target, toward the end of shunning, ridiculing, punishing, and eventually eliminating him or her. This dire form of collective aggression, found in nature as well as the human realm, is clearly identifiable, and a reasonably coherent body of knowledge about it has by now been amassed.

Despite our many stumbles, disputes, false starts, and dead ends, the researchers who meet in Cardiff will keep soldiering on toward an empirically sound science of workplace conflict. To the extent we build that little science, we can then apply it effectively for keeping the larger scientific enterprise from being undermined by meanness and chicanery.

We are not at that point yet. Without conclusive evidence one way or another, scholars and activists will continue to argue about how the incidence of mobbing and bullying can be reduced. Some will press for “healthy workplace laws”. Others will promote grass-roots interpersonal techniques.

Meanwhile, in workplaces as different as No. 10 and your local university, the name-calling and recriminations will go on.

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