Bystanders to bullying: Thought vs. action

What happens when individuals observe others being mistreated at work? How do they regard the aggressor and the target? Do they actively side with the aggressor, or perhaps rush to help the target? Or maybe they do nothing.

A study of how people perceive aggression between others by Tara Reich and M. Sandy Hershcovis of the University of Manitoba may not answer all these questions, but it lends some insights worth considering.

“Observing aggression”

Presenting their paper “Observing aggression” at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s annual conference in Chicago last Friday, Tara Reich described two experiments in which participants observed aggressive behaviors by an individual toward a 3rd party, both of whom — unbeknownst to the participants — were actors.  The purpose of the experiments was to gauge participants’ attitudes and behaviors toward aggressors and targets.


It may come as no surprise that observers, on the whole, demonstrated more negative attitudes and more negative behaviors toward the aggressors. Indeed, if we are to have any hope for humanity, we’d expect people to be disapproving of those who commit aggressive or abusive behaviors and to show that disapproval in some way or another.


The results concerning observers’ attitudes and actions toward targets proved more twisty and interesting.

Observers’ attitudes toward targets did not worsen and, in fact, may have reflected sympathy for their plight. However, observers’ behaviors toward targets became more negative, similar to the rate of negative behaviors they directed toward aggressors.

Relevance to bullying

Okay, so this is one experiment, conducted in a very controlled setting, and not even set in a K-12 school or a workplace. And yet, these results have a strong ring of truth in them, at least to me, with special pertinence to bullying and mobbing behaviors at work, in schools, and in society generally.

Some random reactions:

Haven’t we seen other examples over time where bystanders who had no previous stake in a given relationship between two people nevertheless joined in on the abuse toward the target?

Even if observers do not feel more negatively toward the target, the target himself can only presume that the negative behavior he’s experiencing is due to animus, yes? This exacerbates the target’s feelings of mistreatment and abandonment.

Doesn’t this also shed some light on how mobs form, i.e., how people are enlisted into a group for the purpose of mobbing someone they do not personally dislike or oppose?

Clearly, these lines of inquiry are worth following.


I’m devoting several posts this week to responses and ideas sparked by papers presented at a panel on April 15 as part of SIOP’s annual conference in Chicago. The panel, which centered on research approaches to understanding incivility, was organized by doctoral student Benjamin Walsh and Professor Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut’s industrial/organizational psychology program.

I was privileged to serve as the discussant on the panel, offering comments on each of the papers. It is exciting to see graduate students and professors examining these aspects of work and workplaces via their research studies and dissertations.

5 responses

    • Beth, that’s an excellent piece — thanks for linking it. At the core, it’s about creating a culture of helping others.

  1. Thank you so much for these very insightful recent posts on bullying in the work place. Unions can play a critical roles in insisting on management transparency; in the absence of open process, I have routinely seen the “tyranny of structurelessness” (Freeman) allow subtle and not-so-subtle female-to-female bullying. However, the victim who challenges less overtly aggressive female bullying tactics (whisper campaigns, diversion of resources to favorites, failure to disclose opportunities to those outside clique)can be framed as the aggressor.

    These dynamics are particularly egregious when race and class dynamics are involved as well.

    • Yes — in my direct experience as a victim of subversive bullying by another female, I don’t believe that my victimization can be categorized as my problem, i.e., the lack of a back bone – or even the lack of non-gender professionalism. I believe the problem lies with the internal and external structures which allow for disrespectful behaviors to be either overlooked or rewarded.

      Additionally — I certainly don’t think that everyone who has managed both men or women is a bully. There are lots of good managers. Bullying is a behavior – not a definition of management. As a matter of fact, my most significant bully was a peer and we were not managers.

    • Char, I couldn’t agree more with the scenario of the target being labeled the aggressor when s/he reacts with anger or emotion in response to indirect mistreatment. It’s a classic scenario, one that covert bullies often are very skilled at instigating.

      As for adding factors such as race and class….indeed.

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