How You Can Be More Resistant to Workplace Bullyingby Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Bullying at work can often be so subtle that it is difficult to report without appearing to be overly sensitive or petty. Most people are not overtly bullied with physical attacks or threats of violence because these behaviors can be easily identified and reported. Instead, most bullying at work is a passive-aggressive type that is usually a combination of subtle behaviors that the perpetrator can easily deny as being misunderstood.
1) Withholding. A co-worker doesn't provide you with necessary information for a task and your performance is affected. The co-worker can claim they didn't realize you didn't have the information.
2) Excessive oversight. Your boss monitors your work constantly, questioning everything that you do. Your boss can claim that is his/her management style or that s/he was concerned about the project and your performance.
3) Gossip. It is especially difficult to control or report gossip because it can be unclear who started it and it is whispered behind your back.
4) Facial expressions. How do you report sarcastic facial expressions? “She rolls her eyes whenever I voice an opinion” may be difficult to prove without appearing sensitive.
5) Teasing. The same behavior can have two different meanings when a person is teased by a friend or by someone they don't get along with. The bully can claim that it was just friendly teasing and it wasn't meant to hurt.
6) Frequent criticism. Your boss focuses on your mistakes, is quick to point out errors but doesn't give you credit for successes.
As you can see from some of the examples, it may be difficult to eliminate workplace bullying because it just becomes more passive-aggressive and hidden. Also, it may not be any one behavior but a combination of events that add up to bullying. A person knows they are being bullied by how the behavior makes them feel but it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact behaviors when the bullying is passive-aggressive.
Question: A doctor I work with feels I am "too proud" and independent in my work. He dislikes my personality, and that's ok--we don't have to be buddies. But he has taken to telling each new group of residents that there is no point discussing anything with me because I am overbearing. He tells them they should just avoid discussion and agree with me. When I present an assessment in rounds he covers his eyes and bows his head. After he leaves, if I need to speak to one of the residents about a patient having problems, I can see them bracing themselves as I approach or rolling their eyes even though we may have never yet spoken to each other! I am viewed as a competant and compassionate doctor by families and co-workers, but this treatment is distracting and disheartening. It is making it difficult to provide safe care, to the point that I have considered leaving my practice.
Yet, workplace bullying can have profound effects on the recipients including anxiety and/or depression or even post-traumatic stress disorder. It can undermine a person's confidence, affect their performance, and preclude them from consideration for promotions.
However, some people are more resistant to workplace bullying so that it doesn't have the impact upon them. Learning to be resistant can prevent bullies from being rewarded for their behavior by hindering their agenda which may even change their behavior when their attempts to bully backfires.
Research shows that certain personality styles are more resistant to bullying (Plopa et al., 2017). Although personality styles tend to be stable over time due to the genetics of being born with certain temperaments, the specific behaviors natural to certain personalities can be learned and used by those with other styles. Therefore, no matter your personality style you can still develop a resistance to bullying.
1) The cooperative achiever. This style is resistant to bullying and depicts those who tend to have a stable mood with low anxiety, high agreeableness, and high conscientiousness. People who are highly agreeable tend to give others the benefit of the doubt. Instead of interpreting behavior as negative and hurtful, they are more likely to interpret it as unintentional or that the person is under stress or having a bad day. In this way, they do not take the behavior personally and are less likely to be reactive to it. When high conscientiousness is combined with emotional stability and agreeableness, the person is motivated and persistent with a positive attitude toward work. They are likely to be cooperative with others and to seek help or social support when needed. They usually trust others, are compassionate and concerned about others, thus having good interpersonal relationships.
2) The social optimist. This style is also resistant to bullying and describes someone who is emotionally stable, outgoing and is open to new experiences. This person tends to be self-confident, social, composed, resistant to stress, more likely to seek social support if needed and less likely to interpret events in a negative way. When this style is combined with high conscientiousness it depicts the entrepreneurial type of personality with a high degree of psychological flexibility which is least vulnerable to stress and bullying.
3) The disagreeable perfectionist. This style with its emotional instability, low agreeableness, and high conscientiousness is vulnerable to workplace bullying. Often considered a “double-edged sword”, conscientiousness can be protective when focusing on work is used to distract from and alleviate the stress of the emotional environment. However, when conscientiousness is combined with perfectionistic expectations, negativity, and disagreeableness, well-being suffers in the face of bullying. People with this style tend to be obstinate, determined, prone to verbal aggression but less likely to engage in physical aggression due to the conscientiousness holding them to a higher standard. A person who is highly conscientious but also negative often suffers from low self-esteem or will focus the negativity outward by blaming others for not doing things right. As a result of their disagreeableness and demands of others they are also more likely to create a negative reaction from others.
4) The socially anxious nonconformist. This individual may be anxious and shy but also tends to be unconventional and open to new experience. This combination makes them more vulnerable to bullying. People who are open to experience tend to feel both negative and positive emotions intensely. When combined with optimism, emotional stability, and extraversion this quality tends to be protective because they are able to experience more positive emotions and are able to release negative emotions through social support. However, when combined with social anxiety and withdrawal, their unconventional attitudes may cause them to stand out in a more negative way and be susceptible to bullying. Thus, this individual experiences stress due to feeling pulled in different directions: a desire to be different but anxiety about being noticed in a negative manner.
The most difficult social conflict usually involves passive-aggressive (PA) behavior. The reason it is more distressing than even aggressive behavior is because it causes the recipient to be doubtful of him or her self. When someone is aggressive towards you, their intention is clear and it is easier to make a decision such as “I need to steer clear of this person” or “I need to report this behavior.” However, the purpose of passive-aggressive behavior is for the aggressor to avoid responsibility for their actions. PA behavior can easily be denied or blame shifted: “I didn't mean it the way you took it” or “You're being too sensitive” or “You're just trying to get me in trouble.”
As a result, PA behavior cannot be addressed in the same way you might handle aggressive behavior. When managing PA people you need to be aware of the underlying purpose of the behavior so that you can respond in a way that prevents them from succeeding at their agenda. The less likely they are to achieve their goal, the more likely you will see a reduction in their behavior. Read more...
You may not be able to change your personality, but by copying the behaviors of these personality styles you may be able to reduce the impact of workplace bullying. Personality may be set to some degree by genetics but behavior is a choice and can be learned.
For instance, I had a client who was socially anxious, introverted, and depressed, all characteristics that made her more vulnerable to bullying, who was being bullied and sexually harassed by her boss. Reporting his behaviors was not effective because the behaviors were subtle and subject to interpretation. So we focused on her being direct and assertive with him. When he engaged in any inappropriate behaviors, she identified those behaviors to him and told him they were inappropriate. If he protested that he didn't mean anything by his behavior, she told him, “Whether or not you intend to hurt me, I'm telling you that it does and I want you to stop.” Although initially she was convinced she would lose her job, not only did he stop harassing her but he promoted her to a leadership position.
There are a number of behaviors the resistant personalities may engage in naturally. However, these protective behaviors can also be learned by other personalities:
1) Seek social support. A primary way of coping with stress is through the support of others—having someone to talk to or get advice from or commiserate with improves resistance to bullying. An introvert does not need a large social group but they can benefit from a few or even one trusted associate.
2) Pleasant. Being pleasant with a positive focus on others can help a person resist bullying. One reason for this is that the agenda of a bully is to create conflict or distress so when they are unable to do this their behavior may backfire by causing them to feel frustrated. In addition, being generally pleasant will cause others to be more supportive of you and less likely to validate the bully.
3) Optimistic. An optimist tends to expect positive outcomes so in the face of bullying they tend to look for ways to problem-solve. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the situation they tend to find ways to manage it effectively.
4) Positive interpretations. Those who are resistant to bullying tend to make positive or at least neutral interpretations of the bully's behavior. One type of interpretation is that they are less likely to see themselves as the cause of others' negative behavior. They also may be more likely to view the bully in a more compassionate way instead of seeing the behavior as malicious. One way of doing this is to recognize that many of us have reacted in hurtful ways when stressed.
5) Non-perfectionistic effort. Those who resist bullying are unlikely to be perfectionists. Instead, they strive for excellence but can accept mistakes. Instead of failure contributing to a negative self-concept they see it as an opportunity to learn and change. They are persistent in their efforts because they don't accept failure as a reason to quit. For more, read: Excellence vs. Perfection.
6) Psychologically flexible. Having the ability to adapt and change behavior when a situation calls for it helps a person to be more resistant to bullying. Instead of focusing on expecting others or the situation to change they focus on what they have control of which typically is their own behavior. As a result, they are more likely to find solutions. For more, read: Coping with Change: Psychological Flexibility.
7) Positive self-concept. Those who are resistant to bullying are likely to have a positive self-concept so the bullying is less likely to affect their self-confidence or perspective of themselves. Instead, they see the bullying as a problem in the other person and find ways to protect themselves from it. For more on changing the self-concept, read: 20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem.
In addition to making yourself less vulnerable to bullying by developing more of the above behaviors, the following list some steps you can take to manage the situation.
1) Promote yourself. Write down your accomplishments and how you are an asset to the business. When you write your achievements it reminds you of the truth about yourself and your work performance. As a result you are more likely to promote yourself and your accomplishments to those in positions that matter. Don't allow bullying to let you become passive or decrease your confidence. Build yourself up so that you can see the reality.
2) Be assertive. Learn communication skills to effectively manage passive-aggressive behavior. Confront behavior but do it in a way that works. For more, read: 7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People.
3) Document patterns. Usually bullying isn't just one instance but a pattern of behavior. So document the behaviors that occur and be sure to include your responses showing how you tried to handle it. When documenting write a word for word account and specific behavior descriptions without your interpretation. For instance, instead of writing “He tried to humiliate me,” write “He pointed out my mistake repeatedly in a group setting saying 'I can't believe you did this.'”
4) Report. Once you have the documentation and your efforts have not changed the situation, get assistance by reporting the behavior.
Plopa, M., Plopa, W. and Skuzinska, A. (2017). Bullying at Work, Personality and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22, 19–27. DOI:10.1037/a0040320
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Dr. Monica Frank