December 16th, 2011
WBI response to J. Harper’s spurious claim of “anti-bully hysteria”
A Dec. 15 post on the Huffington Post by bullied-out-of-her-career Janice Harper caught the attention of those of us operating at “ground zero” of the workplace bullying movement. Attacks on the movement are analogous to attacks on the originators and chief spokespersons — that’s us. Space to comment on other sites is too limited. So, I use our own platform to respond point-by-point on behalf of millions of bullied individuals. Her piece was provocatively titled: “Top Ten Reasons to Rethink Anti-Bully Hysteria.”
First, let me say Dr. Harper, an anthropologist by training, and I, a social psychologist, probably have much in common. The difference is that she came through a horrific academic experience personally. Dr. Ruth Namie bore the brunt of that direct experience for our family; my experience was vicarious. For that reason, I am unwounded have necessarily been the spokesperson. Second, when unhealed wounded veterans of the bullying wars go public (as some of the more brazen critics of WBI do frequently), they can set back the movement with agendas narrowly focused on themselves. Harper’s injuries may not yet be resolved. She makes some silly and downright incorrect claims. I will reply to her Dec. 15 essay in italics.
Top Ten Reasons to Rethink Anti-Bully Hysteria
by Janice Harper
In previous essays I’ve discussed some of my concerns with the use of the bully label, the failure to distinguish between workplace and schoolyard bullying, and the need to distinguish workplace bullying from workplace mobbing. Now, as the year comes to a close and top ten lists rise like hit songs on a pop chart, I’d like to provide my own top ten reasons for rethinking the current anti-bully hysteria.
1. In the understandable rush to eradicate mean-spirited and aggressive people in the workplace, there is a tendency to move from anti-bully to pro-mobbing and encourage people to gang up and eliminate anyone labeled a bully.
Eradication of bullying is the goal, not of bullies. Targets do not suddenly convert to revenge-seekers who team up to bring down those who attacked them. Most individuals skulk away quietly shrouded in shame and secrecy just hoping to move on. Not sure who advises this. Certainly not us at WBI.
2. As awareness about bullying behavior grows, so too does the hysteria surrounding it, so that once a person is accused they are assumed to be guilty and vilified, regardless of their actual behavior or intent.
In the absence of company policies with full enforcement provisions and laws that would indict people in a criminal manner, there is no official sanctioning forum that labels people as “bullies.” In the American society where we are co-located, only child abusers (think Jerry Sandusky) are guilty and vilified without regard to due process. Business frauds who cheat old ladies are forgiven. Jack Abramoff writes a book on how to buy lawmakers. Sports heroes go to prison and return to contracts worth millions. Exactly what “bullies” are vilified? Steve Jobs, the deity? What you say, Janice, does not currently happen.
3. Even if a person does exhibit “bullying” behaviors, they are operating in the context of a specific organizational culture; the anti-bully focus is on the individual, not the organizational dynamics that might foster it.
Couldn’t agree more. We have tried unsuccessfully with two publishers have our book titles include “bullying” rather than “bully,” but neither cooperated. Our book for organizations to read about bullying decries the focus on the individual. This again is the experience in individualistic societies — anthropology told me so.
4. By failing to distinguish interpersonal bullying from collective mobbing, much of the advice given to targets of workplace aggression may escalate their suffering by provoking management’s retaliation and transforming bullying to mobbing.
The canard of mobbing vs. bullying was old 15 years ago when we started, and newcomers to the field like yourself seem to have to rediscover it and share the learning as if it’s new. Though Heinz Leymann died before he could attend our first and only US conference back in 2000, his representative did. She had no qualms about using the term bullying. She was a patient of his in Violen. As the leading proponent of the phrase workplace bullying in the U.S., it is safe to say that WBI has always said that bullying is a multiple-perpetrator phenomenon. End of “dispute.” We defer to Ken Westhues’ materials and arguments about the distinctions. When you use mobbing, you sound paranoid.
As for a focus on bullying (the systemic reinforcement of negative conduct) vs. bullies (the individualistic personality approach), that is another false accusation about the movement (hysteria, as you deem it). The press focuses on bullies. Book publishers fight the term “bullying” in book titles. But smart researchers and practitioners all focus on the former. You need to read the pages in the books, and not stop at perusal of just the covers.
5. Workplace bullying includes a power dynamic that is absent in schoolyard bullying, and although the processes are very similar, their differences are significant. The two forms of interpersonal aggression should be discussed with different terminology, strategies and objectives.
6. The “bully” focus tends to minimize group psychology, looking for convenient scapegoats and exempting others from responsibility when their aggression is collective.
RE: Points 5 & 6. I resent an anthropologist calling the extensive work done in this country by social psychologists on the topic to be somehow devoid of group dynamics. Colleagues Loraleigh Keashly and Joel Neuman were the only two brave souls doing this work back in 1997 (and before). And if you more carefully read what proponents in the movement say you would see it is well grounded in organizational models and processes. Those of us actually working with employers do much more than is known by the press. However, we have written books about it. So, you need to read more.
7. Just as “bullies” are viewed as inherently volatile and bad, targets are viewed as inherently passive and good, and typically advised they are morally superior and did nothing to contribute to the aggression. Such views preclude any possibility of behavioral changes for anyone involved, and flies in the face of human psychology.
You disqualify yourself as an outside observer of the phenomenon when you copy the provocative victim theory, commit the fundamental attribution error, and blame abuse victims for their own fate. Keep your academic perspective on this one. You may have been mobbed, but presumably not abused.
There is a morality play afoot. Don’t make the mistake of siding with the ones who initiate abuse. The parallel is to domestic violence. If one equivocates and stands equally with the abuser and abused, that person has lost her moral compass and right to distinguish right from wrong. Not ALL targets are saints, but if you worked with nearly 7,000 of them as we have at WBI, you wouldn’t perpetuate gibberish about them being equal to their assailants.
8. Too much of the focus on bullies has become associated with a single political perspective, namely liberal Democrats, even though interpersonal aggression affects a diversity of political interests.
Again read, read, read. Visit the national site for the Healthy Workplace Bill. There you can see the political party affiliation of legislators brave enough to sponsor an anti-bullying bill. At least three parties are represented. Republicans are not a itsy bitsy minority, either. As far as labeling, I’m not sure liberal democrats exist today.
However, your point is important in another, more profound perhaps unintended, way. Abuse in organizations is political. It derives its support from those in power. Rather, than dem vs. repub, it’s executives and bullies vs. those who came to their jobs to work. There is a partition, just not along the lines you describe so glibly.
9. Aggressive behavior in the workplace does indeed damage people’s lives and livelihoods, yet by calling for the elimination of workers labeled bullies, encouraging gossip and sabotage of anyone accused of bullying, and making anonymous reports against alleged “bullies,” workplace aggression has the potential to increase.
Who calls for the elimination of the bullies? Most of them will stop when their employers dare to challenge and expose them. They keep their jobs and move on. Who would ever call for anonymous reports against others? You must be reading the work of HR and “career” experts. We see you are associated with some newcomers to the field who profess an “expertise” but know little more than a bullied target. Just living the experience does not make one an expert, nor does publishing an academic journal article, or training in an academic field related tangentially to the topic. But it’s America. If you say you are an expert, you are treated that way by a lazy media.
10. The rhetoric is very negative and exclusionary, rather than focusing on how workplaces and other organizations can become more compassionate and humane toward others.
Interpersonal aggression is indeed a serious problem, and any form of aggression in our workplaces, schools and other organizations merits attention and remedies. But how we view the problem will shape how we address it. And as we move closer to ideological orthodoxy in how we approach it, all I see is an even bigger problem in the making.
You are a naive angel to think that eradication of truly destructive behavior begins with a focus on the positive through HR-type fads of the month: “employee engagement” “visionary management” “purposeful work” “ethical behavior” etc. You haven’t worked either as a consultant or manager enough to know what it takes to right a large ship sinking from destructive action by the few. Take the high road. You are young. But eventually you will learn how organizational default to the lowest ethical level, not aspire to the highest. And certainly not in the contemporary world of multinational for-profit firms that universities (like the host of your personal misery) emulate.
My post-article observations:
We all await the publication of your own book, which your series of articles is no doubt meant to pre-promote. But we expect more than tales from the trenches by a wounded warrior whose perceptions have been distorted by horrific experiences. Too many newcomers to the field are so wounded they cannot separate their own injuries and resentments from them to see clearly what needs to be done.
Methinks that you will be a positivist, pollyanna, equivocator. You could use the moniker “Dr. FeelGood.” HR will love you. But your work will not help those abused at work. And your insistence on some of the principles you have espoused above will get you press coverage because you pose no threat to organizations that actually originate and sustain the conduct to which you were subjected. You will be seen as reasonable and corporate-friendly — the goal of all newcomers. You will be very TV-friendly. But will you be intellectually honest to audiences (and more importantly, to yourself, true to your self-perception)?
As for us, we choose to tell truths, side with the abused, and risk not doing business with those too frightened to do what it really takes to change their toxic organizations.
Janice, you live 100 miles from us. Come visit. We’d love to convert you to a champion for the cause rather than an apologist for abusers (part of the hysteria machine). Come see the world through the WBI perspective. Our door is open.
This entry was posted on Friday, December 16th, 2011 at 4:08 pm and is filed under Fairness & Social Justice Denied. 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.