Workplace Bullying and its effect on organisational performance

“Some people won’t be happy until they’ve pushed you to the ground. What you have to do is have the courage to stand your ground and not give them the time of day. Hold on to your power and never give it away.” – Donna Shoenrock.

All over the world, whenever we think of bullying we are reminded of the school bully who used physical aggression and intimidation to take our food, money and other stuff. We cringe at how they made us do unpleasant things and how we wish we were strong enough to fight back. However, there is another form of bullying that is hardly discussed but is very much part of organisations – what is referred to as ‘workplace bullying’.

Bullying in the workplace is a counterproductive behaviour often perpetrated by people in positions of authority (bosses/managers, supervisors, executives – and sometimes peers) against those with less power. It is mostly nonphysical, passive and an indirect form of aggression. Within the organisational communication framework, workplace bullying refers to the negative, harmful, and sometimes hostile and aggressive communication present in organisations.

Renee Cowan, an author in the field, describes it as “a type of aggression characterised by negative verbal and nonverbal communication that is repeated, systematic, and results in negative effects for those involved as well as the organisations in which the bullying takes place”.  It is a silent phenomenon, one that has huge hidden costs in terms of employee well-being and productivity.

In most situations, the victims are unable to defend themselves and are forced to make a choice between staying or leaving the workplace. The decision to leave the workplace has its own costs and benefits but does not come easily. The individual has to weigh the cost of leaving (loss of job and income stability) against the benefit (no longer being bullied) as well as the cost of staying (bullying continues) against benefits (stability of job and income).

Bullying in the workplace, can range from underserved evaluations, denial of advancement, taking credit for someone else’s work, arbitrary instructions, unsafe assignments, withholding information, failing to provide a person with the necessary feedback, yelling, mocking, ridiculing, spreading rumours, blaming for errors, unreasonable work demands, put-downs, threatening job-loss, discounting accomplishment, sabotage etc. Despite the varying nature of bullying, most tend to be communicative, either verbally or nonverbally.  Verbal bullying especially focuses on attacking the individual’s self-concept, attitude, opinions and understanding about his or her competence.

Workplace bullying is a toxic combination of continuous emotional abuse, social ostracism, interactional terrorising and other destructive communication that erodes organisational health and damages employee well-being. When an employee is constantly receiving messages that seek to portray him as incompetent it affects his emotional state, and hence productivity level reduces. Emotions and feelings are important components of organisational communication and must be handled well.

Bullying normally occurs when managerial leaders attempt to show employees ‘who’s the boss”. In my line of work as a lecturer, for instance, I come across students whose employers do not know they are schooling because they are likely to put impediments in their way when they get to know. In situations where students have informed their employers, they are either forced to choose between their university education and their work or frustrated with so many assignments, especially when the time is approaching for them to leave for lectures.

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I have friends who are excelling at their current places of work, but only after they left their previous workplace where they felt they were being victimised for expressing one form of dissent or another. Comments such as “you haven’t done enough to earn promotion/ increase, your whole department is useless, your work cannot be used”, especially for someone who believes he is working hard, can easily affect the individual’s morale.

Sometimes, workers who express dissent (disagreement, different opinions) suffer many forms of bullying. Such workers therefore go into a ‘silence mode’ and become the yes-man. They agree to everything in order not to be a victim of bullying. What makes bullying even more serious is that it is perpetrated by and through communication. An employees’ reaction to bullying is also communicative in nature, and this can be damaging to the workplace.

Bullying can also come from bosses who have a competitive personality. Such people are competitive and appear driven – operating as they do with a sense of urgency. Although this has its advantages, the flip-side is that they become easily frustrated and verbally abusive when things don’t go according to plan. Impatience and tantrums are common for such individuals, and due to their ‘two-faced nature’ – considerate if things are going well and abusive if not – their presence can cause the work environment to become tense. Employees feel they are walking on eggshells when he is around.

What is interesting about workplace bullying is that it is not illegal, and there is no law against workplace bullying. This allows bosses to have their way. In fact, it may appear as if the one in authority is legitimately doing his/her work by ensuring that the employee ‘works hard’ to achieve the target set. Such people can justify their actions and it will not be bullying. The bullied is therefore left with no defence and must decide to either stay and endure or quit.

Research suggests that bullying is four times more common in the workplace than sexual harassment. Targets of workplace bullying are often highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular employees. Experienced workers are known to pose the greatest threat to bullies. Refusal by the victim to be controlled or intimidated leads to escalation in negative behaviour by the perpetrator.

Effects of workplace bullying

The effects of workplace bullying are enormous. They include anxiety, depression, burn-out, frustration, helplessness, difficulty concentrating, emotional exhaustion etc. Bullying can also hinder communication within teams, cohesion, and performance by creating a hostile environment marked by apprehension, distrust, anger, and suspicion. Significantly, people who witness their colleagues being bullied also experience a negative reaction. So, indirectly, these individuals become victims as subsequent actions they take are based on what they have witnessed. Their attitude toward the work environment will be altered significantly.

The organisation also suffers as victims invariably report to work late or develop all sort of strategies to absent themselves, including feigning sickness.  Victims also show lower task performance, lower creativity, higher counterproductive work behaviour, and low organisational citizenship behaviour. Job satisfaction is usually low, as the individual demonstrates low organisational commitment and high intention to quit. Such negative attitudes eventually affect performance outcomes.

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Bullies ultimately gets employees to comply but not to commit. According to John Baldoni, a leadership author: “Compliance is okay for day-to-day operations, but when an organisation is faced with a challenge or even a crisis, you need employees who are willing to go the extra mile. People who work for a bully are biding their time looking for a way out, or a time when the bully will be replaced”.

Workplace bullying can also spill-over into the family/relationship arena. Individuals who experience abusive behaviour at the workplace can take it out on their co-workers, family and friends. The individual’s family activities are highly influenced when that individual suffers abusive supervision in the workplace.

Research has shown that a significant portion of family conflicts are related to what one’s partner experiences at the workplace. In other words, when employees suffer abuses, they are more likely to abuse their family members when they get home. Abusive supervision ultimately influences subordinate family function and satisfaction through relationship tension.

If bullying within the workplace is to stop or reduce significantly, it will be important for leadership of the organisation to take the first step. Bullying is influenced by several factors including role-ambiguity, high demands, poor leadership, and perceived injustice. Leadership of organisations can therefore ensure role-clarity and reasonable workloads, offer leadership training that encourage supportive leadership styles, and generate policies that ensure fair and just treatment, decisions, and outcomes.

Employees can also be provided with the necessary skills and/ or coping resources to deal with bullying should it happen. Targets of bullying can also take steps to manage their emotions by trying not to take people’s actions personally. More importantly, when bullying is reported it is important for organisations to respond appropriately. Before this can happen, leadership must create the right atmosphere to encourage people to report bullying. If the organisational response is poor, the victim is unlikely to report an abusive experience.

The organisation can use workplace mediation, usually a third-party to the conflict, and get both perpetrator and victim to work through the situation in a facilitated discussion – focusing on the present and future relationships. Sanctions can also be applied on perpetrators; whether through movement to another department, demotion or even firing. However, since accusations of bullying are mostly difficult to prove, sanctions can be difficult to justify legally.

Whatever method is used, the outcome should lead to a positive work environment. What is evident is that the silent epidemic called workplace bullying will not stop anytime soon, and may never be fully resolved until organisations and authorities act. This is reflected in the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, the South African social rights activist: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.


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