Three Faces of Bullying

One of the fundamental weaknesses in much of the discussion on bullying has been the failure to adequately distinguish between bullying among children and workplace bullying. This distinction is critical to informed discussion and effective policy because the two forms of interpersonal aggression reflect vastly different power relations. In bullying in schools, the instigators of the aggression are children, and the enforcers of policy are adults who are not under the authority of the children whose behaviors they control.

As such, when bullying among children is reported to an adult, that adult is unlikely to face retaliation for doing something about it. Even though a child who reports bullying may find the bullying becomes more severe in retaliation for “tattling,” a responsible adult can still intervene to stop the aggression, knowing they will not likely be punished for doing so. Intervening will not cost teachers, administrators and counselors their jobs; their perceptions of the interpersonal aggression will thus be more objective than if they were observing or responding to bullying among their colleagues. And if and when they do intervene, as adults they will have greater influence over the children’s behavior, than if they tried to do something about bullying in their workplace.

In contrast to bullying among children, in workplace bullying, the instigators are very often people in positions of organizational leadership, or who have the organizational support of someone in a position of leadership. Reporting a bully in the workplace thus puts the worker at risk of being targeted by management for retaliation and ever more aggression. More importantly, when bullying in the workplace is instigated or condoned by someone in a position of organizational leadership, efforts to report or stop it can quickly escalate from bullying to mobbing.

It is important to understand the psychological and social factors that differentiate bullying from mobbing. Bullying is a form of interpersonal aggression in which one person, who may or may not be in a position of influence or power, abuses one or a few individuals. Mobbing involves a group of people, acting under the influence of someone in a position of organizational leadership, who become increasingly aggressive and increase in number until the targeted worker is removed from the group or completely disempowered.

Mobbing starts when someone in a position of organizational leadership communicates to the workforce that they want a particular worker gone. When this happens, the workforce will be encouraged to report the unwanted worker for any infraction, real or rumored, and they quickly learn that any adversarial action taken against the worker is acceptable. They will also quickly mobilize to protect their own interests, align with management, and recast the worker as a trouble maker who must be removed from the workplace—but most will do so under the genuine perception that it is the targeted worker who is the problem, and not the instigating aggressor.

Interpersonal aggression, exclusion, shunning and cruelty have no place in any organizational setting, and until the anti-bullying movement begins to explore the distinctions between bullying and mobbing, individual interpersonal aggression and group aggression, and schoolyard bullying and workplace bullying, the power relations that make “bullying” possible will remain hiding in the shadows, enabling anyone, no matter how committed to cooperation, compassion and kindness, to bully or be bullied right out the door. A first step toward closing that door will be to disentangle our terms and concede that different forms of aggression require different solutions.

via Three Faces of Bullying | Psychology Today.