HUMAN RESOURCES / MAR. 02, 2015
version 5, draft 5

How Timid Employees Are More Vulnerable to Bullying Bosses

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Bullying is one of the uglier aspects of the modern workplace, whether it’s through verbal abuse, singling someone out for criticism, trying to humiliate a colleague or excluding them from activities. I wrote last year about research exploring what prompts a boss to bully someone in their team (usually someone with much less power).

The study suggested that bosses would often lash out on their team during crisis situations when the pressure is at its most intense. I’ve written previously about how such behaviour can quickly become contagious with bullying rapidly being seen as the norm in a workplace.

The downward spiral of abuse

A recent study underlines this point still further. The previous studies highlighted how abusive bosses would often pick on the weakest members of their team. A recent paper published by academics at the University of East Anglia reveals that being the victim of bullying often results in the individual becoming more timid and anxious, which in turn makes them more likely to be victims of further bullying in future.

Whereas traditionally employers might focus most of their attention on the bullies themselves, the study suggests that of equal importance is to help the victims of bullying gain the confidence to stand up to difficult situations.

"This study shows that the relationship between workplace bullying and the psychological impact on victims is much more complex than expected,” the researchers say. “Examples of bullying at work include harassing, offending, or socially excluding someone repeatedly over a period of around six months".

The authors go on to underline the negative impact bullying can have, both on the victims as individuals but also on the workplace as a whole.

"Workplace bullying leads to poor health because the victim is exposed to a very stressful situation – resulting in anxiety and lack of vigour,” they say. “We wanted to see whether deteriorated health could make the employee an easy target for bullying. For example, the victim may have less energy to respond to difficult situations and therefore receive less support from colleagues or supervisors”.

How sadness infects our mindset

The authors also suggest that the sadness bullying often inflicts upon us can trigger what they call the ’gloomy perception mechanism’. This suggests that anxiety and sadness can often cause us to look on the world as a negative place, and turns us into glass-half-empty kind of people.

Through testing their theory on almost 350 employees at a Spanish organisation, the authors believe they discovered a particularly malignant impact of workplace bullying.

Exposure to bullying in the workplace often leads to a worsening of mental health and a decrease in general wellbeing. At the same time, however, it also prompts anxious behaviour from the victim, which makes them more vulnerable to further bouts of bullying in a vicious cycle.

"We are by no means victim-blaming here. Clearly employers need to have strong policies against workplace bullying. But training programmes to help victims learn coping mechanisms could help to break the vicious cycle," the authors conclude.

Have you been the victim of bullying in the workplace yourself? Did you, or your employer, offer any tips or support on becoming more assertive to ward off the bully? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

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