Nov 25 2009

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Understanding Office Bullies

By Ilya Leybovich, ThomasNet New

Bullying in the workplace is said to be a “silent” epidemic, subtly but severely affecting workers’ health and businesses’ bottom lines. There are many ways to deal with a bully, and understanding the psychological factors driving such hostile behavior can be an asset in preventing or alleviating it.

Office bullying is not rare. In fact, a significant number of United States workers report being bullied in the workplace at least once in their careers. But while most forms of bullying are not illegal, they can negatively affect staff performance or even drive some workers out of the company. For these reasons, dealing with office bullies is an important part of establishing a cohesive work environment.

The first step in addressing this type of behavior is to examine the psychological and personality-based conditions that cause a person to engage in bullying.

According to a 2007 study prepared by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and research firm Zogby International, 37 percent of the United States workforce, or roughly 54 million people, have been directly bullied at work. Moreover, in 62 percent of cases, employers either worsened the problem or did nothing when informed of the bullying behavior.

Part of this may be because most bullies were bosses (72 percent), while most of the bullied were employees (55 percent), the study reported. Sixty percent of bullies were male and divided their bullying roughly equally between male and female targets, while the 40 percent of bullies who were female were 71.3 percent likely to pick on other women.

In addition to disrupting performance and exacerbating worker disengagement, bullying also generates turnover and can lead to staffing problems. The WBI/Zogby study found that approximately 40 percent of employees targeted by bullying eventually quit, while 24.2 percent were either terminated or forced out of their positions. By contrast, only 14 percent of bullies were fired as a result of their actions, and 9 percent were punished but allowed to keep their jobs.

Workplace bullying has a negative effect on numerous aspects of business activity, but what are the factors motivating this behavior and, based on the causes, how can a company address or eliminate such conduct?

Researchers from the University of California, Berkley and the University of Southern California recently completed a series of surveys and experiments on the causes of aggression, and found a strong link between bullying behavior and incompetence.

According to the study’s findings, published in the November issue of Psychological Science magazine, “power paired with self-perceived incompetence leads to aggression, and… this aggressive response is driven by feelings of ego defensiveness.”

The researchers first had a group of employed men and women fill out questionnaires describing their aggressiveness and their perceived level of competence, with the most aggressive types reporting a high degree of defensiveness regarding their competency. Next, the researchers used targeted essays to boost or undermine their feelings of power and capability.

Finally, the volunteers were asked to assign punishments to university students who answered questions incorrectly. The punishment choices were a series of horn sounds that ranged from 10 decibels to a deafening 130 decibels in volume.

“The volunteers who felt the most incompetent and empowered picked the loudest punishments — 71 decibels on average. Workers who felt up to their jobs, selected far quieter punishments, between 55 and 62 decibels, as did those primed to feel incompetent yet powerless,” New Scientist reports.

Of course, not all bullies display these characteristics, but the combination of being in a position of authority or empowerment and having a sense of inadequacy correlates strongly to bullying behavior.

“Power holders feel they need to be superior and competent. When they don’t feel they can show that legitimately, they’ll show it by taking people down a notch or two,” Nathanael Fast, a social psychologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and one of the study’s authors, told New Scientist.

The study claims that flattery can alleviate aggression by boosting a bully’s self-perception, however, “such flattery, although perhaps affirming to the ego, may contribute to the incompetent power holder’s ultimate demise — by causing the power holder to lose touch with reality.”

Considering these psychological factors and the interpersonal power dynamics that can lead to a tendency for bullying others, handling workplace bullies may depend on making workers feel more comfortable when transitioning to new roles. Helping a leader ease into a new position and explaining that it is natural to sometimes feel insecure or daunted by one’s responsibilities may prevent future bullies from emerging in the first place.

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