How did you react when you saw someone bullied at work?

What type of bystander are you?

Those of us who have been caught in the sites of a bully boss know that the people with the most power to help you are the ones who witness the abuse being heaped on you.   Will they risk their own job to stand up for you?  Or, will they look for ways to make things worse.  In their research article, “When is a bystander not a bystander? A typology of the roles of bystanders in workplace bullying”, Megan Paull, Maryam Omari, and Peter Standen describe the roles and outcomes (positive & negative) that bystanders play.

The Instigating Bystander helps establish the situation and sets up the bully’s actions. This type is not a ‘bystander’ in the literal sense, but rather does not appear to observers as the primary or most visible source of aggression as his/her involvement is largely covert. The Instigator has been called a ‘puppet-master’ (Twemlow, Fonagy and Sacco 2004), one who feeds a more overtly aggressive colleague with information or advice and directs their behaviour towards the victim. An example is the person who advises an angry but passive colleague how to ‘take a stance’ against a third person in future meetings to put the target ‘in their place’: ‘Don’t forget to remind her that last time her presentation to that company was a failure because she left the brochures in the car’. Other forms of Instigating Bystander include the colleague who deliberately misinforms a target or bully, or the one who spreads rumours or malicious gossip about either, to cause the bully to act aggressively (Crothers, Lipinski and Minutolo 2009). One victim specifically recounted being ‘gossiped about in public’ with the intent of provoking the bully (Omari 2010).

The Manipulating Bystander is less overt in siding with the bully. Rather than suggesting the latter use particular actions or words, the Manipulating Bystander creates situations in which the bully and the victim come into conflict, perhaps unknowingly. A manipulator may see a victim or bully enter a room and then suggest the other party, unaware of this, follow. A manipulator may supply, withhold or distort information about the victim to incite the bully. An example of this is where one worker drew another into his actions:

One man [alleged bully] would ‘cc’ me in emails to some he was struggling to threaten or deal with. So instead [of handling the situation himself] he would include me in the problem to try to get the outcome he wanted [because he knew there were already tensions between me and the managers in the area]. (Omari 2010)

The Instigating Bystander is distinct from the Manipulating Bystander in that the former creates the situation, but the latter takes advantage of one which already exists.

The Collaborating Bystander is more overt, expressing derision or aggression publicly or through e-mails to back up the bully’s position. A Collaborating Bystander might fall silent, with the bully, when the victim walks by, or laugh with the bully at the latter’s aggressive remarks. The collaborator may be motivated by a number of things: to look good in the bully’s eyes; to avoid becoming a victim him or herself; or out of shared dislike for the victim or his or her position, values and friends. One of Omari’s (2007) respondents reported:

The female officer made an aggressive general comment that the officer initiated part-timers [sic] only work Sundays [implying not at all]. Another female asked me when I was going full-time as my children were now old enough. Shows how little she understands, my middle child with a disability needs appointments or therapy.

In this situation the respondent was reporting being victimised over her family situation, and the need for family-friendly work shifts.

 The Facilitating Bystander also joins in the event, but to a lesser degree than the collaborator. Facilitators may appear less aware of how their behaviour constitutes bullying, for example justifying it as joining in ‘normal’ office banter or gossip and being unaware of its real impact on the victim.

Facilitators may also work by inaction, passively accepting the bully’s hostility or lack of support towards a victim (Coyne, Craig and Smith-Lee Chong 2004). In Omari’s (2007) data a temporary, more junior member of an executive group, after waiting anxiously to speak in a meeting, was spoken over by another member. The respondent reported the groups’ inaction as worse than the bullying itself:

I was left sitting open-mouthed, feeling embarrassed and angry – angry that I had been spoken over and (probably) more angry that not one of the other executives in the room acknowledged the incident and afforded me the opportunity to say what I wanted to. In a way, although it was only one person that was responsible for the incident I felt that the other executives in the room were guilty by association because not one of them seemed prepared to come to my rescue or even to acknowledge the incident.

The Abdicating Bystander facilitates bullying behaviour by ignoring it. This is most serious when the abdicator has a managerial responsibility to take action. An abdicator may rationalise this stance, for example, as not pushing the bullying behaviour underground. This type of bystander may feel inadequate to the task of managing the bully or supporting the victim, possibly as a result of the fear of loss of personal or referent power. One respondent stated: ‘In my experience the managers … are generally primarily concerned with keeping the senior staff happy and new junior staff as largely expendable’ (Omari 2010), implying that they do not intervene even when they could.

The Avoiding Bystander sees the impact on the victim but avoids taking action. Avoiders, for example, avoid conversations where they might feel others expect them to speak out; absent themselves from situations where the bully and the victim may interact; or attempt to avoid escalation of a beginning conflict. Avoidance is an attempt to protect the bystander at the expense of the victim. The avoider, like the abdicator, ignores the event but differs in not having organisational authority to intervene. One respondent reported avoidance in these words: ‘The other team members are sheep – too scared to speak up and keep a low profile in case they are targeted’ (Omari 2007).

Unlike the abdicator and the avoider, the Intervening Bystander steps in to halt the event or to prevent further conflict. A manager may warn the bully or counsel the victim, or a colleague may alert a manager or use his or her personal or referent power.

Among Omari’s (2010) professionals, one victim’s manager acted as an Intervening Bystander:

I complained to HR about his [the bully’s] behaviour and I also approached my [boss] who handled the situation excellently … [my boss] also follows up with me on a regular basis to ensure no other incidents have happened.

The Defusing Bystander lacks positional authority or chooses not to use it, seeking to resolve the conflict with skilful negotiation and communication. A trusted colleague having the ear of both parties, or someone with strong self-esteem and relationship skills, may take this path. A colleague may alert the bully that the behaviour might be seen as offensive, or counsel a victim to either take the issue less seriously, or change their reaction to the bully.

A perceived bully in Omari’s (2007 , 132) public service data reported:

There was this single, unattractive woman with a shocking personality who prior to my arrival was competitive at the manager level … She was furious and took her grievances [about my management of her poor performance] to the manager and said I was bullying her. The [manager] promptly came to me and asked me to cut [the officer] some slack because (and I quote) ‘you have a husband, a personality and a life – poor xxx has nothing and never will have’.

Note that the alleged perpetrator may not have changed her opinion of the other party, but did change her behaviour based on the manager’s counsel. Defusing a potential situation is a skilled act. In the above example, this counsel has merely taken some of the heat out of the situation, rather than resolving it by proactive intervention.

Defending Bystanders speak up, defending the victim against the bully by challenging the latter’s behaviour, commenting in meetings or when corridor humour goes too far. Unlike the Defusing Bystander, the defender takes sides with the victim. Examples include the colleague who says ‘hey guys that’s enough’ when a noisy lunch-room crowd taunts a new junior over a mistake. One of Omari’s (2007 , 127) perceived bullies reported receiving defending feedback from bystanders:

I pressured that person to change the place they work … to come and work in my section … I was putting a lot of pressure on her. And I was causing her a lot of distress … she told me … other people told me.

The advice of the ‘other people’ had an impact on the manager’s thinking and behaviour.

Empathising Bystanders also take the victim’s side emotionally but avoid intervening. They listen empathically to the victim’s complaints or concerns without offering assistance, and will not intervene against the bully or alert a manager. The empathiser may report their feelings for the victim to family members or to staff who are also unlikely to take any action. Such action may be an attempt to alleviate guilt at not intervening. Alternatively, the empathiser may avoid expressing empathy to others or the victim. In keeping their feelings private, the empathiser may continue to be affected long after the victim has moved on, as one of Omari’s (2007, 184) respondents observed: ‘others witnessed the assault and are still affected by it years later’. Empathising Bystanders may need to be counselled with respect to their feelings about bullying situations.

The Sympathising Bystander goes a step beyond the empathiser in offering sympathy and practical support to the victim, to reduce the trauma or avoid its repetition. While victims can rely on Sympathising Bystanders only insofar as they trust them, such support is usually highly valued:

I had some very, very supportive people around me who were a tower of strength really and just were wonderful. If I hadn’t had those people I don’t know how at the end of two years I might have come out feeling. (Omari 2007, 148)

Empathisers and sympathisers, however, try to avoid being drawn into the conflict, perhaps fearing becoming a victim. They may even feel gratitude at not being a target, covering up guilt at not intervening.

The Succumbing Bystander becomes a fellow victim, for example as a result of unsuccessfully publicly defending or sympathising with the victim. This bystander becomes grouped with the victim. For example, in a meeting, aggression towards the proponent of a new idea may become directed at supporters of the idea. These supporters may eventually display the same symptoms as the victim, such as feeling stressed or withdrawing. One professional reported such a ‘ripple’ effect: ‘because everyone is chronically depressed. 5 of the 8 [employees] are on antidepressants solely due to the work environment … both my psychiatrist and psychologist described the work environment as “extremely toxic” ’ (Omari 2010, 20). This emotional contagion (Harvey, Treadway and Heames 2007) can affect the entire workplace.

Going further, the Submitting Bystander offers him or herself as a target, an alternative victim for the bully’s attention. In Omari’s (2010) study, one respondent decided not to engage in the bullying activities of colleagues, drawing the bullies’ attention away from their previous target, a personal assistant (PA): ‘their actions included hiding mail belonging to my [work], the silent treatment, inviting everyone out except me and the new PA’. The respondent reported feeling he or she was now a substitute victim, receiving ‘nasty comments and trying to make me look stupid, “talking down” to me etc.’ The Succumbing Bystander, through their own emotional response, and the Submitting Bystander, through actually becoming a victim, as well as – to a lesser extent – the Empathising and the Sympathising Bystander, may experience negative consequences similar to those of a direct victim.

Other studies have described bystanders in terms related to the categories above. Twemlow, Fonagy and Sacco’s (2004) ‘sham bystander’ is not responding authentically to a dispute, but taking sides for personal or political reasons. This person might be an instigator, setting up the actions of the bully while pretending not to be involved, or an empathiser avoiding full expression of feelings that might lead to intervention. Exploring these underlying motives is beyond the focus of this paper on the behaviours of bystanders.

The roles outlined in this typology do not stand alone. Individual bystanders can: take on more than one role at a time; take on different roles in different circumstances; and move between roles as the course of a series of bullying events or issues evolves. An example of this might be the bystander who feels empathy for the victim, reaches a point where he/she intervenes or defends, and then moves into the Submitting Bystander role, becoming a new victim. Similarly, the Intervening Bystander may also be simultaneously intervener, defender and sympathiser, offering help and support in more than one way to the victim.

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