WARNING: How We Discuss Bullying Can Make Things Worse

Two must read mainstream articles were published this week. USA TODAY quoted an expert, Dorothy Espelage, who argues that because it’s “being used for everything from rolling eyes to ‘not wanting to be your friend’ to sexual assault, the word ‘bullying’ has really obscured our ability to focus on what’s happening… To call what’s happening with 18-to-22-year-olds ‘bullying,’ when in fact some of it is criminal behavior … it’s a disaster.” In Psychology Today Dr. Janice Harper brings the “bully label” argument to adult behavior in the workplace.”I don’t know what scares me more,” she writes, “the memoriesof venomous torment I’ve personally endured in school and in the workplace, or the troubling tide of anti-bullying rhetoric that I fear will do far more to embolden than control those mean-spirited people who consider their behavior acceptable as long as they convince themselves that it’s “deserved.” But I have discovered that to even discuss these concerns often leads to accusations, hostility and silencing responses nearly as aggressive as bullying itself…” Harper makes a strong argument and she’s not the only one pointing to the “demonizing” rhetoric used by “society” as part of the problem.

Research shows that how we discuss bullying can hurt targets/victims

Watercooler_(2)Researcher Pamela Lutgen-Skagen & Virginia McDermott, authors of Making Sense of Supervisory Bullying: Perceived Powerlessness, Empowered Possibilites found that the words targets use to share their experiences around the water cooler can deeply impact the victim’s sense of control over the situation and ultimately the outcome by, in some cases, paralyzing the target from making pro-active choices.  They found that it wasn’t just upper management that was at fault but also “targets, co-workers and society.”

  • “…when others agree (‘‘You’ve got that right; he’s a sociopath!’’), agreement can short-circuit other equally plausible explanations.”
  • How we speak about these experiences has a lot to do with whether or not we feel we can control the outcome: ‘She’s basically evil’’ vs. ‘‘I was just getting over an illness so was more vulnerable.’’ Stability is the perception of an event as likely (or unlikely) to endure over time: ‘‘Once a bully always a bully’’ vs. ‘‘A few supervisors are just bad apples.’’ If a person’s action can change an outcome, the situation is controllable, but if the outcome will be the same regardless of action, the outcome is uncontrollable: ‘‘When I complained, the bully was fired’’ vs. ‘‘No matter who complains nothing is done.’’
  • “…Although workplace bullying is a very real and traumatizing experience, finding different ways to talk about it could alleviate some of the hopelessness targets feel and open spaces of leveraged change. Past research has suggested that some ways of talking about bullying may further paralyze targets and fix their sensed impotence”
  • “…Targets report making sense of bullying through conversations with others who have experienced or witnessed the bullying. Speaking only with others who feel powerless might exacerbate feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, creating barriers to receiving more empowering support. If, however, targets’ conversations with coworkers constitute collective resistance focusing on organizational change, this shifts language from evil demons to systems and casts bullying as a problem amenable to change. Because targets often describe bullying as something only someone who has experienced it can understand, they may perceive others in their social networks as inadequate sources of support. But in bullying situations, targets frequently need support from their personal networks (Zapf & Gross, 2001), so considering that others might have useful ways of looking at the situation is important. Talking with someone with the same sensemaking frame (i.e., colleagues) may serve to solidify further targets’ perceptions and even to reify framing vocabularies that are less than useful. Though collegial agreement can feel supportive, it may not help the person move through the situation. In some cases, the best source of support to help reappraise a situation and consider alternatives might be persons who understand but are not experiencing the same stressful event.

Still Convinced You Can Recognize A Bully?

Kevin Morrissey became the Poster Child for workplace bullying advocates when they linked his suicide to alleged bullying by his boss.  The story splashed across the national newspapers and was even featured on the Today Show within weeks of his tragic death.  Months later his co-worker told a different story in my film, What Killed Kevin?  

4 thoughts on “WARNING: How We Discuss Bullying Can Make Things Worse

  1. I know what bullying is I lived it for the last 9 years. I was just left go and boy what a drain it has been. All I want to do is die. I have nothing. I have gone thru suicide attempts 4 times and when I look at it I ask what for? I know that I was being set up and lied to by my leader and manager, what could I do. They are master liars and manipulators. I am now known as Bills 1st Failure – and he is proud of it. To think that people have the power to lie and destroy a persons life, make that two lives doesn’t matter.


    • No job is worth taking your life and I send you soft prayers of support and hope that you have already built or begun to build a support system to help you through this troubled time. Please contact 1-800-273-TALK


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