January 1st, 2013

False equivalence and workplace bullying


We just finished a general election with more lying by candidates than usual. The news media did not brand them liars. Instead, they treated all candidates as if they were equivalent, even if one side uses facts. This is implying an equivalence that is not real; it is false.

A similar tactic is when one person whose opinion denies climate change (backed by 24 published articles) is shown on TV split screen during an interview with one person discussing the science of climate change (backed by 13,950 published articles). Just appearing side-by-side implies that the two “experts” are equivalent. But only one side is backed by facts and evidence. Treating opinions and facts as equal defines false equivalence.

And so it is with workplace bullying, a phenomenon characterized by an imbalance of real, effective power at work, leaving one person much less powerful than the other. By the time the targeted person realizes what has happened, she or he is severely compromised.

First, employers, primarily through their HR reps, impose a false equivalence on bullied targets when they mandate mediation as a solution to bullying. Mediation assumes two parties with relatively equal power. The condition is not met. Mediation further shames, humiliates and disempowers targets. Bullies emerge stronger than ever. And the more sadistic among them get the additional thrill of watching the well-intentioned mediator (if the professional is external to the org), act as an unwitting accomplice for the bully.

Also, business writers, biz school professors and other apologists for bullies who know little to nothing about the experience of being a target also promote a false equivalence. They do this by suggesting that “there are two sides to the story.” That is true, but the implicit assumption is that “and the two sides are equally fact-based.”

The reality is that bullying, as we at WBI define it, is indefensible. The “justifications” for it include distorted perceptions — the target asked for it, the abusive mistreatment was merely correction of performance deficits by a fair manager, and worst of all, if the behavior was unwanted, the target should have simply told the aggressor to stop. Bullies and their apologists have opinions, all designed to retain organizational power for abusers.

Targets typically have the facts. They document the unsolicited assaults. Witnesses see the incidents, too. Unfortunately, witnesses are paralyzed with fear that they will next be targeted so they remain silent and do little to intervene. (See the WBI study about witness behaviors.) The facts are known by those cowed into silence by the phenomenon.

If targets enjoyed a real equivalence with their bullies, targets’ accounts of their horror would be treated as credible as are the bullies’ versions of reality. In fact, targets are not believed. They are denigrated as “disgruntled,” “emotional,” or “hypersensitive.” Employers don’t want to hear that bullies, frequently seen as indispensable by their executive “sponsors,” are actually cruel, divisive, destructive and a source of preventable financial losses.

Finally, bullies and targets are not equivalent from the perspective on both having equally important needs and interests. At WBI, we constantly draw the analogy between domestic violence and abusive, violent interpersonal misconduct at work (a.k.a. workplace bullying). What are the needs of abuser? To express his or her violence frequently without constraint. Needs of the abused? To live free from violence and the constant threat of inflicted violence.

Let’s extrapolate. What are the needs of workplace bullies? To be able to free manipulate the psychological safety and security without risk of being held accountable or suffering punishment. Done and accomplished.

What are the needs of bullied targets? To be left alone to do the job they were hired to do. To work free from fear and the risk of humiliation. Not even close to being accomplished in America.

So, the two sides of the story, as lived and perceived by the two primary actors in workplace bullying situations, are not close to being the same. No matter how you score equivalency, bullies and targets are unequal.

To say otherwise is to draw a false equivalence. Maybe when workplace bullying has been addressed by state laws and employers are compelled to stop treating it lightly as if bullying is a reflection only of personality quirks, targets will approach equality with their perpetrators.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 1st, 2013 at 1:50 pm and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. 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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  • http://twitter.com/KathyPidgeon Kathy Pidgeon

     Couldn’t agree more and I think it is something unions here in UK need to be more aware of as mediation often recommended.

  • kachina2

    Until there is a legal basis from which to base a complaint, there is no need to defend indefensible behaviour. Bullies will continue to bully simply because they can. Mediation is an unnecessary distraction that serves only to provide false hope to targets.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/3A2QSPB6TWGFLLK2DRM54QNLBI Paul

    OK, I’m very confused about this topic.  In my situation, I was bullied by a colleague in my academic department for 8+ years.  The bullying was acknowledged by my administration and the union, but both told me that they could not prevent it from occurring; they could only respond after an incident occurred.  I made a number of requests for mediation with my bully, through my dean and through the campus mediation center, but my bully always refused to enter into mediation. 

    My union rep told me:  “Don’t request mediation, because right now you have the upper hand; the administration knows that he has been bullying you and you are the victim.  If you enter into mediation, you lose the upper hand, because you are both treated as equals.”

    My dean told me: “Don’t try to request mediation, because it’s totally voluntary, and we know your bully won’t go.  I do have the power as your supervisor to call you both in to discuss the situation (which is NOT mediation); but I don’t want to do that because that would simply anger your bully even more, and make your situation worse.”

    And the coordinator of our campus mediation center told me: “Your bully has made it clear to you and to us that he does not want to mediate or try to improve the situation in any way.  Therefore, if you request mediation, it could be construed as YOU harassing HIM, because you’re provoking him.” 

    Yes folks, these were the illogical and twisted responses that I got from my union and my administration.   In other words; “We know you’re being bullied, but there’s nothing we can (or will) do about it; but you’re not allowed try to do anything about it either, because it will only piss off your bully and then we’ll twist it around and consider you the aggressor.”

    So, the message they sent to me (and the article above seems to send) is: Even if everyone acknowledges that you’re in the right and you’re being bullied, don’t use mediation as a way of breaking the logjam; rather, just keep on accepting the bullying behaviors and the unfair treatment by your administration, and hope that something will magically happen to suddenly break the vicious cycle and rectify the situation.  Is that really the best course of action?

    In my case: NO!  My bully eventually provoked me into an altercation which led me to a mental breakdown necessitating a medical leave for an entire semester.  The college admin realized that they were now in legal jeopardy, because their inaction had allowed the bullying to continue and directly caused my illness.  So they went into “legal defense mode,” and they now deny that they had ever acknowledged that the bullying had ever occurred (in spite of the fact that I have loads of written documentation in which they acknowledge the bullying!  Furthermore, they claim that I have had a longstanding mental illness which had never been diagnosed, compounded by an overly emotional nature.  Yadda yadda, the same old stories we all know about.  Even though their own college-appointed Independent Medical Examiner (hired to clear me to return to work) reported to them that THEY caused my illness by allowing the bullying to occur AND their subsequent mishandling of the situation, the college is still clinging to their threadbare “defense.” 

    So, I’m left feeling that victims are caught in a hopeless no-win situation:  All the “experts” say that attempting mediation is the wrong thing to do; but in my experience, if you don’t attempt mediation to break the vicious cycle, there’s no way out and you’ll end up getting severely harmed by the situation.  Is there really no solution to the conundrum?  Is it really hopeless to try to take action, and to try to gain some control of the situation (or at least not feel like a helpless pawn in the game)?  Otherwise, the only message that I seem to hear is: There’s nothing you can do to try to alter the situation, so give up all hope and let yourself be a helpless victim.

    • http://www.workplacebullying.org Dr. Gary Namie

      I think the uniqueness of your situation was that you might have had the upper hand originally. If that was true, you might have benefitted. It’s all about power. If you had it and lost it, that explains your downfall.

      Slightly more likely is the fact that the Admin was closer to going into “legal defense mode” than you knew. They do it so many times with so many people, it is a well rehearsed tactic. They are always on the cusp of defending aggressors.

      We do not say be a helpless victim. We say re-frame the abuse as an assault on the institution’s mission and fiscal soundness. Shift the discussion to put them on the defensive. If they still stand by the abuser, you have to extricate yourself. But given your tenure, or at least long-term standing, in the department, leaving spontaneously is never something we advise. Our book, Bully At Work, lays out in detail an alternative to cutting and running.

      Helplessness carries significant health risks. Please don’t slide into that state.

  • yeskia

    ‘Mediation’ , implies balance, that is, ‘equal’.  When and if there is ‘equal’ and balanced mediation regarding workplace bullying, then maybe, target’s will have the means to prevent being bullied, but, until then, and this comes from my personal experience, if you are a target of a workplace bully, DO NOT go to HR!
    Get a good lawyer, that is the only thing ‘organizations’ respond to. Mediation is a joke. The target thinks, “great, I am finally being heard”, no, it’s merely HR’s way of legally dealing with a complaint so they are not accountable.
    Once the target has legal counsel then HR will take you seriously, the last thing they want is legal trouble.
    Mediation is not legal recourse, a liable suit is. I know from experience and having gone through all of the phases of being bullied, that the most difficult part for most target’s is fighting back, because by that time, most target’s are completely devastated and worn out, but in some way’s, taking legal action shows the perpetrators that there are other way’s to expose the truth.  
    Bullies always back down from a fight, especially when they are exposed.
    Personally, my experience has left me empty and cold, and even though I am not in that environment anymore, the bully stole something very precious from me, and I’m not sure if I can ever recover it, because it’s about trusting and truth, and that has been destroyed.
    Although, there still is a very tiny flicker, and that gives me joy.
    Trust yourself and your instincts, because they are usually correct.

  • 1SierraZephyr1

    As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we recognize that many people made significant sacrifices to see the Civil Rights Act passed.  While that important Act resulted in great strides toward equality for many that should truly be celebrated, the fact is that it protects only those in “protected classes”, i.e. discrimination (or harrassment) based on race, age, sexual orientation, etc.  Until such time as the Civil Rights Act protects EVERYONE, we do not have equal rights in the United States.  If even one person does not enjoy this protection, then we do not have equality.

    • http://www.workplacebullying.org Dr. Gary Namie

      Beautifully stated.

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