March 12th, 2011

New rationale for coworkers’ ostracism of bullied individuals


The reluctance of coworkers to come to the aid of bullied targets baffles and perplexes all targets. They are good people. Why don’t others help them when they need it. Here’s a study that provides new explanations (or simply reinforces what a bullied target might have suspected).This was a lab simulation study designed to test explanations outside the realm of bystander effects and social influence. Rather, Parks and Stone created a mixed-motive (individual vs. group gain), social dilemma-type game for participants. The lone participants played a 10-round game of making contributions to, and harvesting points from, a pool ostensibly created along with four other players. It was a computer simulation. One of the virtual others, designated as person blue, was portrayed as either “fair” with small/small or large/large contribution/use pairings, as “unselfish” (large contribution/small use) or as “selfish” (small contribution/large use). Finally, participants rated to what extent they wanted others to remain in the virtual group. The key measure was the rating for person blue.

The “fair” versions of person blue received the highest retention scores and the selfish person was seen as the least desirable. Surprisingly, the unselfish person was seen as less desirable as the selfish one. In a second round of studies, the benevolent-unselfish actor was expelled but not due to confusion or incompetence on their part.

In a final test of plausible explanations for why the group is willing to expel a valuable member who is an over-contributor to the group’s positive impact while using few resources, participants were asked reasons for expulsion. It turns out that, by comparison to self, for some, it was less fair when someone in the group was altruistic. The prime reason (by 58% of participants) given for cutting the unselfish member was the resultant negative self-evaluation. It also appears that the distinctiveness of being benevolent was resented as being too different from the rest of the group. The person was seen as a rule breaker and non-normative by 35% of participants. The selfish actor was expelled for perceived destructiveness (77%).

This study demonstrated counterintuitive hostility to a generous group member who either makes others feel bad by comparison or appears threatening by virtue of her or his virtue. The benevolent other is not motivated to create either experience for group mates. This matches closely the experience of bullied targets ostracized by coworkers. The study offers these new explanations.

Source:  Parks, C.D., & Stone, A.B. (2010)  The desire to expel unselfish members from the group. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010, Vol. 99, No. 2, 303–310.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, March 12th, 2011 at 1:34 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. Andrei Pambuccian says:

    Neuroimaging research could hopefully help those who are good-natured identify each other without resorting to time-consuming social interaction. This would allow us to establish societies and organizations that catered specifically to our kind of people instead of joining those that might later exclude us.

  2. TwilightZone says:

    If they were to do this study in a collective society, such as Japan, I’m willing to bet the outcome would be far different. American culture places oneself above all, while Japanese culture places the wellbeing of the group above oneself. Not to say the grass is greener on the other side, but I think some of us targets would fare better working in other countries.

  3. kay says:

    I like that. Very interesting and seemingly right on the mark. I often wondered that as well. I have seen it demonstrated just as noted in the study. The women may know of the worst intrusions possible for a woman, having happened to you and while they regretfully comment on it, they may not stand fully in support of you.

    I often wonder if I might be too ethical and moral. I am by no means perfect, but I try to live in a manner somewhat pleasing to God. I sometimes worry that others may think that I am too much of a goody goody or may somehow distort their thinking and believe that I am in any way judgemental.

    I see the covert snide and sneaky, pretend friend today and enemy tomorrow behavior going on and I steer clear. I’d much rather just do my job and do it well, and feel free to form relationships with those that are -normal- to me, in that they are not interested in the politics. choosing this for yourself can work against you because when something very bad happens to you in the environment, the loudest troublemakers will not help you.

    • maryellen says:

      Your comment is so spot on it’s scary, it sounds exactly like me. I think the personality trait you described could be a common denominator bullied targets share. I also agree with the findings of the study about bystanders, it is mind boggling that others witness a victim being terrorized, harassed and treated downright evil, yet no-one stands up for the target. Lying and denying is another attribute of bullying.

  4. Linda says:

    I have experienced this often. I show up to work on time. I do my job well. I am good and supportive to my co-workers, well liked by clients, efficient at my job, non judgemental to people’s personal lives, and BLAM! When I get bullied on the job no one comes to my defense. I do feel I am a non-normative person but I was always taught to not be a lemming. Abe Lincoln is my role model. I try to do the right thing and have as much integrity as possible.

    I also don’t see why I have to continually complement a bully at work. I have run into both male and female bullies. Male bullies, from a female like myself, expect some kind of sexual attention like flirting. I am supposed to use my good looks and charm to get ahead. As is often said, “It’s an asset. Why not use it?” Inwardly I say I am here for my brains and what I can contribute to the organization. Why do I have to wear a skirt and butter up to get my point across. Female bullies get threatened if males pay attention to you. They are very possessive of their male counterparts attention and resort to lying about their target, creating impossible job situations and micro-managing to sabotage their job.

    Either way the need for attention other than competency at the work place is indicative I am working for, pardon the way this is put, some jerk who hasn’t grown up and needs to be the center of attention. I feel like saying I think you need a couple of round back in Romper Room and work your need to be babied and coddled out some other way.

    I have grown to hate being singled out when I do a good job. The bully boss/coworker goes after me and the rest let them. Then SHOCK after I leave, usually I quit at this point, THEY get bullied. I run into these people in the commute and I hear the same thing, “You were so right!” In the mean time the bully is still working.

    The question for this institute is how do you insulate your self from these kind of people who are in such epidemic proportion I have made it a career to freelance rather than deal with what they dismiss as “politics.” I feel I am inept in navigating these landmine fields to secure a paycheck. I just don’t want to deal with it anymore. When I see a bully in an interview I don’t accept the job. I need to work. But I would like a steady place to work instead of hopping all over the city without a steady paycheck.

    I have two careers bartending and graphic design. I usually make $25 to $30 an hour in whatever job I do the bartending or graphic design.

    What are the best scientific recommendations. Wishing this bullying epidemic will go away is unrealistic. So how does one cope?

  5. Jay Jacobus says:

    I suppose that being good could be detrimental in some situations but being smart could also be detrimental in some situations.

    A cruel, manipulative boss may be successful but not because his employees had a chance to vote on him. Rarely (never?) do employees vote for a boss.

  6. J. says:

    The study seems entirely plausible to me. Any target will have a tendency to extrapolate to her/his own experience. The administrators of my college, supported by a few highly unethical long term faculty members, work tirelessly to remove anyone who is ethical and so far they have succeeded. I have seen ethical colleagues severely abused. Anyone who consistently demonstrates ethical, decent, and considerate behavior will be punished and eventually fired. Those who are not tenured should not expect tenure, regardless their qualifications.

    Those who are tenured can expect constant and unrelenting abuse, threats and worse. I have openly opposed discrimination and tried to insist we follow the written ethics policy and I have even gone so far as to suggest faculty members may have rights, so I am a favorite target. When I pointed out that at least one of my supervisors and three of my co-workers committed or helped commit a crime, I was accused of harassing and bullying them.

    I agree with Jay Jacobus that being smart, or competent, is equally detrimental. The most published members of my college are as hated as the ethical, unless they are willing to behave unethically. The dean of my college has no discernible research and does not publish. She generally promotes others who do not meet high standards of scholarship, apparently because they are non-threatening and easily manipulated. When I was hired several years ago, college administration lied to me about the publications of another faculty member to hide the fact that I had more publications than any member of their faculty – they needed the publications for accreditation purposes, used my publications to their benefit, and then wanted rid of me. They will do anything to get rid of me.

    I deeply regret allowing my unethical department chair to participate in a research project with me. She never understood the topic and my editor cut much of her contribution because it was not related to the topic. I thought removing her name from the article would be unethical, as she did do some work on it, so I sent it out with her name attached. She was tenured almost immediately after it was published. She has been actively trying to get me fired since, for about three years. In my college, the cliche is absolutely and literally true “no good deed goes unpunished.”

  7. maryellen says:

    Someone please tell me how to get back on the (work horse) I have been out of work for nearly 2 years because of an abusive and hostile work environment. It’s like getting burned, you try to avoid anything that resembles fire. sexual harassment, profane language, and pornography is normal behavior on jobs these days. If you dont join in with the crowd you are an outcast. If I had the resources to start my own business I would never get back out there in that jungle again. any ideas of safe places to work?

    • J. says:

      If you are inclined to start your own business, don’t assume you lack the resources until you have researched the businesses that interest you. Checking out the possibilities will only cost you time. Starting your own small business may be the best way to go. If you have the background and skills to do some type of consulting, that may also be an option. You may find a way to go into business on your own.

      • Andrei Pambuccian says:

        Bear in mind that, if you want to start your own business, you have the option of trying to create a cooperative. Find out how much capital each member of the co-operative would have to bring in for it to work, then thoroughly research and advertise your idea on websites dedicated to this purpose. The following website by The Co-operative Group is an example:

        http://www.co-operative.coop/join-the-revolution/

        I imagine a lot of good, competent people with reasonable savings would be happy to contribute to such a project. Although co-operatives can have dedicated managers, one could very well employ decision-making by consensus or majority vote, or periodically vote in new managers, which I believe would reduce the risk of workplace bullying.

  8. MK says:

    In religious terms, virtuous behavior often causes others who are less virtuous to feel “convicted” of falling short in some way, i.e. makes them look bad (in their own eyes and perhaps to those around them). This phenomenon explains why so many biblical prophets and saints, and Jesus as well, had such a hard time of it.
    Those who do their work too well are accused of “raising the bar” and labeled “over-achievers” (Who do they think they are?!). When something bad happens to them (like being targeted by a bully), co-workers may feel that the too-good worker is getting his/her “come-uppance” for having set a higher standard for him/herself.

      • Linda says:

        Yes! So what do we do about it? How do you protect yourself from this kind of behavior? I will be getting one of your books once the paycheck gets here, but is there some kind of affirmation/checklist that one can read every morning before they get to work to steady oneself for the day?

        I know it may sound like seeking a quick fix, but for some one who needs quick support until they can get to a resource for a long term fix it would be a good idea.

        I look forward to reading your books. The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense series has helped me but I feel it just does not address this issue well enough. I do have the help of a therapist who can help me understand the issues and keep my self esteem up, but the actual navigation in the work place is really needed.

        As Maryellen says:
        “It’s like getting burned, you try to avoid anything that resembles fire. sexual harassment, profane language, and pornography is normal behavior on jobs these days.”

        She is quite correct. My last job bartending it turned out that the Bar Manager had a gambling problem. Every time she lost at the table a bartender lost a shift so she could take the money. She just didn’t re-schedule us, she manipulated the GM and did things like sabotage recipes (i.e. mixing honey in the the Margarita mix instead of aquave nectar) and blame it on the bartender’s shift she wanted.

        How do you navigate this kind of thing?

      • Linda says:

        My Bad.

        I am new to this site and just found your three step method.

        I’ve done a better job than I thought in protecting myself. I figured out that once targeted I stood a good probability of losing my job and/or the contract but I had no idea it was 64%!

        The difference is that I will notify management more often if I think there is a chance to keep my job. It is really hard to identify a good employer vs. bad employer because they are all charming and you never know who is being charming to gather information to use against you and who is actually just nice and personable. It sounds like just assume they are looking for information to use against you since most bosses are bullies.

        Very helpful.

        Thank you very much!

      • J. says:

        If you know other targets, you can help each other. I have found other bullied colleagues supportive. You will want to meet/visit where you will not be seen and keep your emails off the company server. Sadly that isn’t paranoia, I have actually been asked about who my friends are and what we discuss.

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      In the Book of Job, Job was targeted for his good behavior and he was scorned by his friends.

      The author may have been making a point but the point was lost because the anti-heroe was God which would be preposterous to the faithful.

  9. kachina says:

    People show us who they are every day. Believe it. It’s an honour and a compliment to be voted off some islands!

  10. LB says:

    Postscript:

    After some reflection about my bullying experience, I realized that before my experience, I was completely unaware of, and unprepared for, workplace bullying.

    I used to think bullying was a big kid picking on a small kid at the schoolyard.

    It just goes to show how our realities alter our perceptions.

    Once one is affected, one’s “awareness” is changed forever.

    It seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

    Is it possible that most people just don’t know what “bullying” is, other than a term ?

    How can awareness be raised, without being affected?

  11. moda says:

    Einstein said it best. “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Isn’t that what this study reveals?

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