Thursday, October 20, 2016

Workplace Psychology; Bullying and Ostracism

What happens when a schoolyard bully grows up and enters the workforce? Or worse, when a bully becomes your boss? The result can be passive-aggressive behaviors and subtle psychological battles that sap your energy and destroy teamwork and effectiveness.

Workplace bullying is more common than you might expect. A 2007 Zogby survey found that 37% of workers - representing 54 million people -- reported that they had been bullied at work. Some research indicates that workplace bullying is a greater problem than sexual harassment.

How can you tell if there are bullies on the loose? Employees experience fear and anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder like symptoms and physical illness. This contributes to absenteeism and turnover as bullied employees avoid or simply leave the workplace.

Some Definitions

Workplace bullying has been defined as “the repeated, malicious, health-endangering mistreatment of one employee (the target) by one or more other employees (the bully, bullies).” To be identified as bullying, the behavior has to occur regularly, repeatedly, and over a period of time.

Common workplace bullying behavior includes;

  • Assigning unreasonable or impossible targets or deadlines 
  • Removing responsibilities and replacing them with trivial, or no, tasks
  • Shouting and verbal abuse 
  • Persistently picking on people 
  • Withholding information
  • Blocking promotions
  • Constant criticism

The Federal Bureau of Investigation places workplace bullying on a continuum of workplace violence, a continuum that includes “domestic violence, stalking, threats, harassment, bullying, emotional abuse, intimidation, and other forms of conduct that create anxiety, fear, and a climate of distrust in the workplace.”

David Yamada, author of the Healthy Workplace Bill in the United States, lists common bullying behaviors as follows:

  • False accusations of mistakes and errors
  • Hostile glares and other intimidating non-verbal behaviors
  • Yelling, shouting and screaming 
  • Exclusion and the “silent treatment”
  • Withholding resources and information necessary to the job
  • Behind the back sabotage and defamation
  • Use of put-downs, insults, and excessively harsh criticism 
  • Unreasonably heavy work demands 

Yamada further states that Workplace Bullying is not:

  • Everyday disagreements and “dust ups” in the office
  • Someone having a bad day and losing his/her temper
  • Reasonable instructions, directives, and employee reviews

Telltale Signs


Bullies are usually insecure and cowardly. That is why they picked on the smaller kids in school. Once they grow up physically and get into management roles they threaten the employment or career status, competence and performance of other employees who they perceive as challengers to their authority and ability to get things done.

Threats of being fired, docking of pay, withholding shifts, assignments or training opportunities and devaluing others work or knowledge are common tactics. The intent is to make the threat uncomfortable enough to go away without a fight. That can be accomplished in a number of subtle and often deceitful ways.

The Silent Treatment

Often a bully gathers an "inner circle" and encourages them to ostracize targets to the extent of completely ignoring them - refusing to even acknowledge their presence. In a modern sort of way its a type of murder. Bullies will stop talking when their target enters the room, then continue talking in hushed tones, casting furtive looks at their target, as tho they are not to be trusted. Destruction of trust is the game. Once trust is broken, the group will naturally align to push the target out.

Rumors and Gossip

One way to destroy trust is spread lies and rumors about the target. These can sometimes be quite vicious. Even though they are untrue, rumors and gossip can spread throughout the organization and tarnish an individual's reputation. In insidious cases, where a bullied target sought to fight back, the bullies spread rumors that their target is merely a "complainer" and a "problem employee."


This tactic is particularly subtle. Bullies may go so far as sabotaging their victim's work. They may destroy or steal a work product, republishing it under their own name or without attribution. They may alter someone's PowerPoint presentation or report, omitting pages or information. 

This tactic has a collateral effect of further isolating the target by burying their work from the rest of the company and contributing to the impression that the target isn't contributing or pulling their weight.

The Deeper Roots of Ostracism

Bullying is a sign of much deeper issues in the workforce and can cripple an organization. By its nature, its goal is to reject outsiders and preserve existing groups. It can be particularly difficult to detect because of its often subtle nature.

Kipling Williams, professor of psychological sciences researches ostracism at Purdue University makes several relevant comments about ostracism in his book, "The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection and Bullying."

"When a person is ostracized for even a brief period of time, the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects pain, is activated. People experience the same initial pain when excluded by strangers or close friends, or even enemies. However, the pain may not linger once the person has had time to consider the importance of the group which has excluded him or her or had time to talk about it with a friend."

"Ostracism is one of the most widely used forms of social punishment, and some see it as more humane than corporal punishment, as when used in a time-out, but there is a deeper psychological impact that needs to be taken seriously. We know that when people are ostracized, it can affect their perceptions, physiological conditions, attitude and behavior - all of which sometimes can lead to aggression."

"First, they're powerful and second, you can get away with them. If people are physically or verbally abusive, they can be punished. But it's hard to punish someone for not making eye contact or ignoring another person. If the person is confronted by asking, 'Why are you not talking to me?,' the person can easily deny the accusation."

Temporary employees frequently report that they feel ostracized. "They feel invisible." Other workers don't want to make friends or even introduce themselves because that person is not expected to remain with the company for long. Temporary workers feel ignored and excluded, and this can affect their performance in the office."

"Ostracism is present in the animal kingdom and is often used to increase a group's chance for survival by basically excluding the weakest link. For example, if a lion is hurt and holding the pride up, then that lion may be pushed away." However, humans use ostracism for more complex reasons. 

The people who are doing the ostracizing often feel a strong sense of belonging with each other, as well as feeling empowered. People who are excluded react one of two ways. The most common reaction is to try to improve a person's characteristics or behavior so they are included or fit in. On the other hand, people who are excluded frequently become destructive and vindictive. Many people also use ostracism as a tool to gain control of a situation.

The silent treatment also can be an asset when you are trying to argue with someone who is more articulate. Williams suggests that if a person reverts to using the silent treatment, then you should reply with; "I can't talk to you about this right now, but we will talk tomorrow."

Williams, along with Wayne A. Warburton and David Cairns from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, found those who are ostracized tend to respond aggressively when they lack control of the situation. Their research, which is scheduled to appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology is available online.


People who are the targets of bullying may experience a range of effects. These reactions include:

  • Anger
  • Shock
  • Headaches
  • Stomach Pains
  • Loss of aAppetite
  • Disruptions of Sleep
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Family tension and stress
  • Low morale and productivity
  • Increased sense of vulnerability
  • Feelings of frustration and/or helplessness
  • Panic or anxiety, especially about going to work

This posting was developed with material from: Psychology at Purdue - Cold shoulder, silent treatment do more harm than goodWorkplace Bullying: Applying Psychological Torture at Work, Workplace Bullying as an Occupational Safety and Health Matter: A Comparative Analysis and Workplace Bullying: A Global Health and Safety Issue

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