April 19th, 2012

WBI: Guided by the bullied workplace target’s perspective


The Workplace Bullying Institute is approaching its 15th birthday. Too often we assume readers know everything about us. This can’t be true. So, we offer something for newbies who might not know that we are target-centric and indifferent toward bullies.

WBI was born out of Ruth Namie’s bullying experiences in a psychiatry clinic in California. Ever since, we have striven to help others like her. Bullying of adults is a bewildering, humbling, and sometimes traumatizing series of events — none of them good — spread over time, sometimes months, most often years. One of our fundamental goals is to prevent people from giving up on themselves before the bullying subsides. We conduct research by and about bullied targets (as most of the scientific work is done using targets as sources of information). We write books for targets. We fill this website with free information for targets. Our work is humanitarian aid for those whose dignity has been trampled or denied. We train others to master all aspects of the phenomenon. We stand against abuse in the workplace.

When we are called upon to help employers, we rely on our 27 years consulting experience as the Work Doctor, now informed by our focus on workplace bullying. However, even our employer solutions are target-centric. That means employee health comes first, bottom-line benefits follow. We show employers how expensive it is to keep bullies on staff, but we recognize that economic arguments pale in comparison to bonds established by bullies with allies.

With our target-centric approach, we do not coddle accused perpetrators. We know they cannot be permanently rehabilitated without significant interventions outside the workplace. The only hope is for employers to constrain their misconduct during work hours to allow everyone else to do their work free from abuse. Most offenders then behave according to the new rules. The chronic abusers quit rather than be controlled.

Our most important task is to identify the deleterious consequences of, the havoc wreaked by, these super-destructive individuals. If harm has resulted, then it must be stopped. Without harm, no bullying probably occurred. We first identify bullying (the phenomenon and process sustained systemically that can be stopped) and subordinate any dealings with bullies (individuals). This runs counter to the American way of doing business. Employers tend to ignore psychosocial stressors that poison a work environment because those factors are rarely tangible. Instead, society and the media are stuck on individuals (witness the obsession with celebrities and celebrity criminals). In bullying situations, perpetrators give face to the system that fosters and sustains bullying, but it is that system that must be changed.

When on-site as consultants, we give the bullies the chance to change (no zero tolerance approach works) in a new system where the aggression is no longer rewarded. Most will stop their counterproductive ways when rewards stop. But we are not out to “get” the bullies. They are sad, incompletely developed (with respect to moral development, not intellect) human beings. Neither do we excuse or accept bullies’ excuses for their conduct (the target made me do it, I’m misunderstood, I’m a perfectionist and the only one who demands it from others). They either cooperate with the changed rules or they will be identified and ousted.

To summarize, bullying cannot be stopped with a focus on bullies. It’s a fool’s errand. We advise our employer clients to end their fixation on individual perpetrators. We also advise bullied targets in the tutorials at this website to not ruminate about their bullies’ motivation. It does no good to brand every bully a psychopath when, in fact, most are normal folks responding to cues in the work environment that make bullying not only possible, but rewarding. The bullying will stop only when the employer agrees to make bullying unacceptable and mean it.

WBI is anti-abuse in the workplace. We are not anti-bully, anti-corporate or anti-business. Not everyone in corporate media or the blogosphere cares about abused individuals.

The Pathetic Glorification of Bullies

Even though the anti-bullying movement for adults is in its nascent stages, there is a backlash against the call for compassion for individuals who suffer at the hands of bullies. In our war-embracing, hyper-aggressive society, it is chic to deny compassion for bullied targets while lavishing sympathy on those accused of harming those targets. It is fashionable to be hard-hearted and call the abused “thin-skinned.” We know what it must have been like for advocates of battered wives in their early years.

WBI is target-focused and driven to foster compassion for the underpowered underdog. Bully apologists, on the other hand, excuse and rationalize misconduct by muddying the moral waters. The bully’s morality is not equivalent to that of the target’s.

Certainly there is one side with a morally defensible position (having never invited nor deserved assaults directed at them) and another side that simply needs to react defensively (the abuse has to be justified so the employer doesn’t appear to condone abuse and abusers).

There are NOT “two sides to the story” that deserve equal moral weight. That’s why conflict resolution tools are not appropriate for serious bullying situations. Cruelty or inhumanity, the non-physical violence that bullying is, serves no business purpose. Bully apologists seem to believe that perpetrators never be held accountable.

Remarkably, many people feel comfortable arguing for the rights of the abuser. Critics of the anti-bullying movement claim that the label “bully” is perjorative. Maybe in court. But on the street and in the media, it offers an instantly recognizable shortcut to an identity, albeit a negative one. Those same critics vehemently want to fight to not demonize bullies more than they want to fight to help targets equalize their power so as to enjoy equal footing with their abusers. Ironically, they call the original bullybusters bullies.

The logical extension of the anti-anti-bullying movement is a pro-bully movement. Do bullies need advocates to strengthen their status? That is the status quo in organizations. Bullies with power always get their way. A certain proportion of people with power are prone to abuse it and harm others. They have operated like this since the Industrial Revolution when factories and offices first appeared.

So, with a 250 year history against equality, the anti-abuse movement faces tremendous resistance. Power is not voluntarily given up. Feigning outrage that bullies are picked on or victimized is disingenuous and ignores history.

Bullies have had their way for generations! Tough guys and gals have dominated and subordinated others in social hierarchies as if natural law demanded it. They operate with a sense of entitlement that power bestows. When power stems from wealth, the media fawn over them as if they are wise sages. Jack Welch tells corporations to pit worker against worker to thin the herd and let cream rise to the top.

Naming Them

So, for those who sympathize with bullies, while excusing or ignoring the consequences of their actions, here are some synonyms to make you more comfortable about what to call “them”:

- asshole (hey the book became a NY Times bestseller with one powerful cuss word)
- jerk (kinda friendly, don’t you agree)
- creep (infrequently used but a variant of jerk)
- thief (yes, many steal funds)
- extortionist (experts in making threats to accomplish their personal agenda)
- communication-challenged person (very skilled communicator, just not for positive effect)
- unskilled supervisor/manager/executive (maybe very right, but cruel nature has to be added to inept)
- aggressor (best for academics and ex-academics)
- psychopath (what distraught targets think they all are, but actually are not)
- hyper-aggressive individual (accurate, but long)
- bitch (forbidden to be uttered by men, but evidently OK for TV show title)
- tormentor (very accurate)
- organizational terrorist (risky, TSA might hear)

our favorites
- abuser (the most accurate, culls accurate association with domestic violence)
- perpetrator (ideal for academics but with a law enforcement slant)
- offender (used only after a policy violation is possible)

There is power in naming. Perps have to be called something! The are the ones who initiate the aggression. To address only the effects of bullies and acting as if no person ever did anything negative would be ridiculous. Yes, we blame the system, but someone personalizes the aggression and acts (either on orders or voluntarily). That someone deserves a label. Choose one. The “B” word has an agreed-upon societal meaning and it’s not bullies.

Even South Park, the TV show, has joined the anti-anti-bullying movement. South Park misses the mark in a recent episode attacking Lee Hirsch’s documentary, “Bully” and other anti-bullying programs in schools. Mocking the anti-bullying movement does a disservice to targets by attempting to marginalize or impugn the motives of those who help them.

WBI challenges the pro-bully apologists who worry about the demonization of those who harm others to ask themselves why they stand with the powerful against the powerless. America has lost its compassion-based moral compass. We need more compassion, not less. Social darwinists like bully apologists have had their say for too long.

On behalf of the 54 million Americans bullied at work, WBI asks pro-bully advocates to switch sides. You’re on the wrong side of this moral issue. Come join the good guys and gals. Altruism is good for the soul. Help those who need it, not the ones who didn’t ask for help and do not need it. Employers give all the support required. Bullies (or whatever you want to call them) are the antithesis of bullied targets.

The worldview through the lens of a bullied target is optimistic and life-affirming. It is not cynical. It is honest and ethical. It trusts never expecting betrayal. It takes pride from doing authentic, quality work. It values learning. It values collaboration and shares credit for accomplishments. It balances life, subordinating work to love, family and leisure. It seeks and revels in strength in others without feeling threatened. It wants autonomy and prizes being left alone to achieve.

How can you not want to help people like these? Put your emotional stock in the good ones. We hope you now understand why WBI does what we do (if you didn’t know already).

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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 19th, 2012 at 9:34 am and is filed under Fairness & Social Justice Denied, 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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  • TwilightZone

    Thank God for you folks. The worst aspect of targethood is being abandoned by those you work with and shunned by society in general. I would have never known there were so many other sufferers but for your movement. To realize I didn’t deserve or invite the mistreatment was liberating. Many of us were taught to revere authority and when that authority figure turns on you, it is devastating. The Bully at Work hit home that it’s the abusive manager who should be ashamed, not me.

    Happy Birthday WBI! I look forward to more valuable contributions in the years to come and passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill into law.

  • kachina

    Thank you Gary and Ruth, for providing the context and vocabulary (vicariously …I got it through an EAP counsellor) I needed to process my experience while I was mired in a toxic workplace. And for the book which was my solace in the immediate aftermath when I quit. And for the forum I could not find locally when I needed to give voice to my experience. And for the example you provide in carrying your passion and hope for 15 years…you are the inspiration I can turn to when I doubt myself only 2 1/5 years out.

    And thank you both for the education and inspiration that is changing hearts and minds…It will transform the world of work! We can all eventually reasonably expect to be supported when we have been wronged and permitted to pursue balanced, health promoting lives and livelihoods. When it all feels hopeless, you have been there for me time and time again.

  • http://www.mgmt-in-a-nutshell.com Jay Jacobus

    Bullies are like the Queen of Hearts who is offended easily and who responds angerly except that bullies are not quite so violent. But they are judgmental and dangerous nevertheless.

  • http://SusanForsterAssociates.com Susan Forster

    Happy Birthday!!!!!!! The above article so clearly educates by framing the issues, asking for the cycles of violence to stop with the leaders setting the tone, and invites compassion back in. Thanks so much for your guidance.

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