October 5th, 2011

Workplace Bullying—The Triad: Bullies, Victims and Bystanders

Christine Jarvis
October 4, 2011
Suite 101

Sticks and stones may break my bones…but words won’t break my spirit!

Research conducted by the U.S.-based Workplace Bullying Institute is interesting. According to WBI, “35 percent of U.S. workers report being bullied at work…15 percent have witnessed it…68 percent of bullying is same-gender harassment; 58 percent of targets are women; and 80 percent of the time, female bullies target other women…”

What is workplace bullying and why does it happen? Ray Williams calls bullying “North America’s silent epidemic,” and says “bullying involves the conscious repeated effort to wound and seriously harm another person—not with violence, but with words and actions.”

There are three components to the bullying triad: bullies, victims of bullying, and witnesses or bystanders.


The vast majority of bullies are bosses—managers, supervisors, and executives.

Ray Williams suggests that bullies are Type A personalities: competitive and driven, and often lacking in emotional stability.

“Above all, bullies crave power and control” Williams says, and they “seem oblivious to the trail of damage they leave behind, as long as their appetites for power and control are fulfilled.”

My theory—I call it the been there, done that (BTDT) victim’s theory and it’s based on personal experience—is that bullies are insecure, unsure of their own abilities and threatened by a show of independence and confidence in the workers they bully. Unable to reveal their feelings of inferiority to same-level colleagues, and smart enough to not bully upward against their own bosses, bullies vent their insecurities upon their subordinates.

Bullies choose as targets those subordinates who display a confidence gained through experience on the job or through achievements in life outside the workplace, a confidence that threatens the insecure bullying superior.


The BTDT victim’s theory is supported by research at the Workplace Bullying Institute, which calls itself “the first and only U.S. organization dedicated to the eradication of workplace bullying.” According to WBI, “the targets of office bullies…are the highly competent, accomplished, experienced and popular employees…”

Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggests a higher percentage of female bullies and targets is due to women’s “open jealousy and envy.” Women, Namie suggests, are “hypersensitive and hypercritical, focusing on tiny details. Those details are then used as a basis to “tear into each other.”

Independent workers pose the greatest threat to bullies. When targets refuse to be controlled and intimidated, the abusive behaviour escalates. When the typical victim of bullying has had enough, realizes that neither the bully’s superiors nor Human Resources will do anything to stop the abuse and quits the job, the workplace often loses the best, the brightest and the most experienced.

Bystanders (Witnesses)

Co-workers often know when one of their number is being bullied. Either they see or hear something, or a victim confides what is happening.

Why doesn’t somebody do something?

Ever notice an accident off to the side of the road as you are driving? Ever look over, curious to know what happened but glad it wasn’t you in that mess?

If emergency services are on the scene most drivers continue past the accident scene without stopping. Somebody else is looking after things.

If authorities are not on scene, and if it is safe for you to do so, you might stop to see if help has already been called and if there is some comfort you can give until professional helpers arrive to do their job. But if the situation poses a threat to your own safety, you are less likely to become directly involved.

Bystanders are often useful and compassionate at the scene of a workplace collision, too. They listen to the victim and blanket her with sympathy. But it is a rare worker who will put his or her own workplace well being in jeopardy by giving a detailed, objective, eyewitness account of bullying incidents to authorities. We live in perilous economic times. Many workers are afraid to draw a bully’s attention away from the usual targeted victim toward themselves.

This self-interest on the part of bystanders is understandable, but ultimately not helpful to a bully’s victim.

Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Read more at Suite101: Workplace Bullying—The Triad: Bullies, Victims and Bystanders


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 5th, 2011 at 9:18 am and is filed under WBI in the News. 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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