January 16th, 2013

WBI Survey: How Bullies Select Their Targets


HOW BULLIES SELECT THEIR TARGETS
WBI 2012-I Instant Poll

Individuals who are bullied ask themselves, “why me?.” They worry that some personal shortcoming is the reason. This self-defeating logic focuses responsibllity inward. The truth is that no one wakes on a work day with a plan to invite humiliation and torment, nor does anyone deserve it. Some academic researchers (e.g., Tepper) adopt “victim precipitation,” an ideology borrowed from criminology that has been thoroughly discredited. It leads to blaming victims/targets. Bullies may rationalize their actions with “the target made me do it,” but anecdotal evidence from targets and witnesses refute this notion.

This ninth 2012 online survey of 655 respondents was intended to replicate original WBI 2003 findings exploring, from the targets’ perspective, why they were targeted.

Workplace Bullying Institute Instant Polls are online single-question surveys that rely upon self-selected samples of individuals bullied at work (typically 98% of any sample). No demographic data are collected. Our non-scientific Instant Polls accurately depict the perceptions of workers targeted for bullying at work as contrasted with the views of all adult Americans in our scientific national surveys.

We asked:

Why were you (or the witnessed person) targeted for bullying? Check top 2 reasons. [1250 total votes]

Rank Percentage Response option
1 .208 Bully/ies threatened by target’s technical skills
2 .176 Bully/ies abusive-toxic personality/ies
3 .140 Target is not a political game player
4 .137 Bully/ies threatened by target’s popularity with others
5 .099 Target perceived as weak
6 .073 Single instigator convinced group to mob target
7 .070 Bully/ies are noticed by higher ups; promotions depend on willingness to aggress
8 .066 Bullying is rewarded at the workplace; experimentation encouraged
9 .021 Group did the bullying & became out of control
10 .010 Target deliberately provoked attacks upon self

Similar to the 2003 WBI survey results, targets stated that their technical prowess and personal popoularity posed a threat to their bully (chosen by 34.5% of respondents). Target strengths threaten bullies.

Two responses could indicate that bullies perceive a vulnerability in targets selected — not a political game player and perceived as weak — accounting for a combined 27.5%.

The majority of reasons for selection involve factors outside targets’ control — personality of the bully, an instigator igniting a mob, organizational incentives — totaling 38.5%. However, it’s nearly as frequent a set of reasons as is target strength.

Proponents of mobbing who point out Leymann’s original contention that group cruelty gains a momentum separate from any original reason for selecting the target will notice the extremely low percentage of bullied targets (2%) who stated that this was their experience.

Only 1% of target-respondents stated that their selection was a response to their provoking the bully to attack them. This finding counters the belief advanced by bully apologists that targets share responsibility for bullying with perpetrators.

Gary Namie, PhD
Research Director, WBI

© 2012 Workplace Bullying Institute. Do not use without proper citation of WBI as the source.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 16th, 2013 at 2:01 pm and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education, WBI Surveys & Studies. 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. Lucia Vickers says:

    I like many others I’m certain are victims of supervisors that target them for constant ridiculing and harassment and bullying. After 5 years, and frankly putting my health at greater risk finally stood up to the bully and got fired. This company stands behind there bully as she has been with them from the start. Many people have ran out crying because of this bully. Now I am having the hardest time finding an attorney to even take our case and we have 6 people that have all been effected and abused by this person. This is one sad epidemic and seems that the rights are for the employers.

  2. . says:

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    WBI Survey: How Bullies Select Their Targets | Workplace Bullying Institute

  3. Nitish says:

    Is there any way a target can turn the tables on the bully without being a bully himself? That is the question that we all should focus on. There is plenty of information on this website on the issue of workplace bullying, but there is very little information on how target can protect himself and avoid being bullied altogether. In my opinion, targets suffer more because they tolerate bullying for a long time before speaking up against it. Should the target show zero tolerance for bullying from the very first incident when the bully is “testing out” the target? What can a target do to avoid being a target and give a clear message to the power bully that the target is the wrong person to mess with? Any thoughts…?

    • Nitish, You make important points. Timing is everything. For instance, in two WBI studies we found that bullied targets indeed do confront their tormentors but the confrontation is delayed by months. The lesson from learning theory that applies is that if a negative consequence to an action is to effectively stop the action, it must follow immediately, not at a time when action (bullying) and consequence (confrontation/rebuff) are disconnected. So, the lag time undermines targets’ chances of backing the bully down.

      The second key point is that targets are by definition unable to answer the aggression directed toward them with aggression. They actually are morally superior but politically vulnerable because they cannot believe others can be so cruel. We constantly say, if the target could have responded with sharp criticism and confidence, she or he would have. They don’t because it is not in their nature. They are open to shock, surprise and self-blame when attacked. They might think of an aggressive comeback hours later. That is who targets are. That’s why teaching targets nifty comeback lines is futile.

      Others, who are not targets, the bully-proof among us and the majority, crush bullies who are testing people for vulnerability. One cannot avoid being a target when unexpected assaults come your way and your response style is not naturally aggressive. Once the claws are sunk in, it takes the employer to stop the bullying. Sadly, that rarely happens and targets pay the price with their jobs to stop their personal misery. I will write a short blog on the few personal things targets can do to become more difficult to bully.

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