Workplace bullying: From target to subject matter expert

Do your homework

Part of your homework

On occasion I receive inquiries that go something like this: I’ve been a target of workplace bullying. I’ve learned a lot from this experience and want to help make sure that others don’t go through what I did. In fact, I’d like to do some work in this area. How can I go about this?

Typically such inquiries come from folks who would like to be more deeply involved in public education, consulting and coaching, and advocacy work about workplace bullying. They run the gamut of professional backgrounds and age ranges. Although I’ve written about how people can respond to workplace bullying as individual activists, I haven’t fully explored this question for those who want to pursue a vocation or serious avocation in this realm. For purposes of discussing possible roles, I will use the term “subject matter expert” (SME), the specifics of which, of course, will vary with individual circumstances and interests. 

The transition from workplace bullying target to SME is a challenging one. Some who want to make this transition proceed under two misconceptions. First, they overgeneralize from their experience, sometimes to the point of regarding themselves as an expert on workplace bullying because of what they endured. The experience of being bullied at work may yield many valuable (albeit very difficult) lessons that can benefit others. But one’s own experience of work abuse is not necessarily universal or even representative. Variations on bullying are seemingly endless. Thus, I wince when I read or hear bullying targets offering what I believe is questionable advice, drawn largely from their own experiences.

Please don’t get me wrong: Experience can be a great teacher, and many people who are doing research on workplace bullying and who are taking active roles in the workplace anti-bullying movement were informed and inspired to move in those directions by personal experiences. However, workplace bullying is a complex and complicated topic, and gaining both a depth and breadth of understanding about it requires time and effort. (Indeed, even after some 15 years of being immersed in this general subject area, I’m still learning.)

Second, some targets seeking to transition into SME roles may enter the fray when their own bullying experiences are still too raw. Emotionally, they aren’t ready. Perhaps they will never be, and there is no shame in that. Some are empowered by becoming change agents regarding bullying at work; others are re-traumatized. My observation is that those who use their experiences as their primary “texts” for understanding bullying at work and who dive into various SME roles before they’re ready may give bad guidance and advice to others, may overlook evidence-based findings about workplace bullying, and may embroil themselves in an emotional stew that consumes them from the inside.

With that said, here are two general clusters of advice for people exploring these possibilities:

1. Get schooled

Above all, a serious course of study — independent or formal — is necessary. For starters, and with a slight nod to American readers, I’d recommend:

  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (rev. ed., 2009);
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (2011);
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing (2014);
  • Stale Einarsen, et al., eds., Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace (2nd ed., 2011); and,
  • Sheila M. Keegan, The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015).

Additional resources abound. The Workplace Bullying Institute website includes an invaluable research portal. WBI’s Workplace Bullying University is an intense, interactive, and content-rich three-day seminar facilitated by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie. The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence has created a webpage of resources on workplace bullying, especially for employers. (I worked with the APA in developing this page.)

Some may benefit from or need more formal training and education, including the possibility of an advanced degree or certification in fields such as psychology (clinical, social, or industrial/organizational), social work, coaching, business management, human resources, labor studies, or law.

2. Get ready

As I’ve suggested above, you need to be able to step out of the emotions of your own experience. That’s not easy. Workplace bullying can seep into the bones. All too often, I’ve seen people jump into this arena, only to discover that they’re still too close to their own experiences. Especially if a counselor or therapist recommends that you’re not ready, it would be wise to heed that advice.

Also, you need to identify where you can make your contribution. Those who seek an avocational role may want to engage in activism and advocacy, social media outreach, and public education work. Many who support the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill are involved in these ways. For those who seek a more vocational focus — in other words, to earn a living addressing these behaviors — it usually will be necessary to pursue work in a given profession. Formal, advanced training in one of the fields suggested above may be appropriate.

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Related post

“I want to help stop workplace bullying” (2014) — “Periodically I get e-mails and voice mails from people who would like to get involved in addressing bullying at work. More often than not, they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying firsthand, and now they’d like to do something on a broader scale to prevent bullying and help others who have been targeted. Here are my thoughts on this topic….”

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12 responses

  1. I have read this before. I, and 21 others at my last school, were bullied by the Principal. She knew she could do it because no one in the school administration would back up the teacher. It was horrible. I was the only one that announced that she was a bully out loud. It went no where. There are no laws against this unless is is an “ism”. I retired earlier than I wanted to since she blocked every transfer I wanted – this was/is her prerogative as a Principal.

  2. Excellent recommendations! I’m completing my PhD in Industry & Organizational Psychology because I’ve been fascinated and troubled by relationships in the workplace. Then, it happened to me. I did not even know about the phenomenon of bullying in the workplace. I was struck down so quickly that I did not know what happened other than the elevation of a director to a corporate position had decided she wanted me gone and she made it happen in a systematic, convincing way. It did not matter that I had won company-wide awards up to that point. She was able to destroy me professionally within 4-months. At first I was just stunned, then angry at the director, then shocked at the bewildering injustice of the corporate system and how one person could get by with that type of negative behavior.

    I was also curious about the personal dynamics of that director, what prompted her to take that strategy. Six years later after taking every opportunity to information seek about the phenomenon of bullying in every course I took, I have become a SME on the topic EXCEPT from the perspective of the individual who chooses to utilize bullying tactics. I know about the current various possible theoretical reasons one would do so — personality, temperament, learning, early life trauma, work pressures, pathology, social and neurological rewards, insecurities, opportunity, and corporate/societal culture. And thus far I’ve been able to find only three published professional studies that sought the perspectives of the supervisory directors in the US. I will be the fourth with my pending dissertation on the lived experiences of senior executives who have used abrasive or bullying tactics in the workplace: a phenomenological study.

    While my experience ended up rocking my internal world more than I initially realized, it triggered my curiosity about the whole phenomenon of bullying from childhood up. I’ve had to explore my own life experiences to understand my part in this highly interactive social dance. Absolutely fascinating!

    Dr. Yamada, I follow your blogs and research and will be referencing your work in my dissertation, as have so many others researching and writing about bullying. Accolades to your work in advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill. I will join your efforts here in Georgia as soon as I complete my dissertation later this year. I am still not sure of how or where I will do this, but first things first — finish the dissertation!

    • Robyn, thank you for your kind words. I’m sorry that your introduction to this topic came from personal experience, but alas, it usually happens that way. I am glad that you’ll be able to harness both your experiences and academic work toward good things.

  3. I disagree with the article’s premise. Everyone who has expertise in the area of workplace bullying needs to speak up and take a role in addressing this scourge. You needn’t have a PhD in the subject or be ‘remote’ from it, that is not “raw” after spending 10 years in a buddhist monastery. Speak up whenever and wherever you are.

    • Kim, I think you’ve misconstrued the premise. I’m suggesting that before bullying targets hold themselves out as experts on workplace bullying, they should do their homework to build a base of expertise that extends beyond their own experience. That may include formal training, but nowhere do I suggest that a doctorate is necessary to do so. Furthermore, you and I are in full agreement that we should all oppose bullying behaviors at work and elsewhere.

  4. I agree with you David. Similar to Robyn, I experienced bullying late in my career. I already worked in human resources and specialized in employee relations (still do). I do a lot of workplace investigations and it is from that, my educational background and personal experiences that I really dove into understanding the psychology of bullying from both sides. As an investigator, it is imperative that I stick to objective facts but from having been a target myself, I learned to be more empathetic and acknowledge what targets go through. One thing that I find interesting about all the research (and it’s been over many years) is that in B.C. Canada, WorkSafe BC does not say anything about ‘intention’ or ‘deliberate’ acts. No one will convince me that there is no intention behind bullying behaviours. It is difficult to clearly define without some understanding of intention. There are people who are abrasive but once that is identified for them, they want to change and will usually be quite apologetic to those they may have harmed. Bullies are not likely to be remorseful because there is something about their make up that leads them to believe they are within their rights. Could you comment on this?

    • Kellie, intent is a significant factor in distinguishing bullying from other, lesser (albeit unpleasant) behaviors. I don’t know if you read my earlier piece here, “Coaching for Workplace Bullies and Toxic Bosses?,” but I basically reiterated the point that intent is often the difference between the difficult, abrasive worker and the abusive bully.

      The workplace anti-bullying legislation that I’ve written, the Healthy Workplace Bill, currently under consideration in several states, creates a legal claim only for more serious, intentional abuse that causes harm to a target. That’s where I believe we need to draw the line at the outset, and then take it from there.

  5. Hi Kellie, The intentionality is what I am now seeking to explore by listening to individuals who have utilized abrasive and bullying tactics. I have an Atlanta colleague, Bernadette Boas, who totally embraced bullying tactics during her past 20+ year career, but she never saw it as that. Years later after a very tumultuous transition of mind, heart and spirit, and some very honest conversations from those very close to her, she came to understand her behaviors and intentions very differently. She wrote a book on it: Shedding the Corporate Bitch. I think you will enjoy reading this book because it does give insights into her thought processes.

    Lynn Harrison, Teresa Daniel, Armell Turner, Abdul Kariym, McCoy Al Husaam, and Maryam Omari have all written recent dissertations that get inside the head of individuals who have utilized bullying tactics to some extent and you might find their research enlightening.

    Like you, I’ve really wanted to better understand what it might be about the individual’s biological and psychological makeup. Other than the very few who are of the clinical dark triad, evolutionary psychological development theories and studies indicate that bullying is an evolved adaptive behavior and within a certain percentage of the population — about 30%. So SOME bullying tendencies comes from a just right biological mix (DNA) that requires an environmental trigger. Other studies that I found interesting are on early childhood experiences as triggers or DNA game changers— traumatically learned. Then, neurological psychology explains how an individual’s neurological system rewards bullying behavior internally (behavioral approach system) AND how PTSD starts out through the inhibition system. Dr. Dacher Keltner from Southern California U provides some most interesting neurological insights here.

    I would love to work as a workplace investigator of bullying and in creating training/educational programs that would help the various players in the game of bullying to better understand their own beginnings so they can hopefully seek out a therapist or coach specializing in their “perspective” — active/direct and passive/indirect perpetrators, targets/victims, perpetrator/victim, bystanders/supporters, and organizational antecedents. But until Georgia passes The Healthy Workplace Bill, organizations will not willingly invest in going this far. I may have to relocate in order to pursue my passion here.

  6. Thank you both David and Robyn for your additional posts. I will absolutely read your previous post David because I have not done so previously. I will seek out ‘shedding the corporate bitch’ as you have recommended Robyn. David, it is exactly your work that is needed to strengthen the definitions we have in our current legislation. I think they are taking a step in the right direction but falling short on really helping victims and perpetrators in moving forward in any meaningful way. Until they can draw the line between bullying and abrasive personalities, and identify intention as the main differentiation, I fear that we will continue to see the bullied become the bullies because they know of no other way to defend themselves. Managers have a right to manage and while I recognize this, it is increasingly difficult to have abusive management being identified appropriately. I’m probably not articulating my thoughts very well; however, without a better definition (which in my opinion is quite grey at this point), we won’t see a lot of change being made with what I believe was intended to be good legislation to protect us from psychological harassment.

  7. Wow, what a conversation… Robyn, thank you for highlighting my own experience, transition and journey, as well as my book, Shedding the Corporate Bitch. The key thing about my story and how I am able to use my experience to help the bullies, the victims of the bullies, and the managers and team members that surround them… is the subtitle – Shifting from Bitch to Rich in Life and Business. I focus on the ‘negative’ belief systems (what I call bitches) which cause bullies to lash out at others. From that, I help victims understand how to manage and handle them in their workplace; and work with managers to mitigate and even prevent it before it even starts.

    I don’t feel I or others need to be experts in bullying; as you noted, there are so many forms bullying takes. Like anything else, someone can pick a lane of how they can positively impact individuals and go with that.

    As a result, we can get more and more people helping to address this issue. Thanks for creating the discussion.

  8. Hi Dr. Yamada and Readers, My book was just published by National Association of Social Workers Press. (NASW 2016). It’s very research based. Title is WORKPLACE BULLYING: CLINICAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL PERSPECTIVES. Can get it from NASW Press or on Amazon.com. NASW has done a pretty thorough introduction, including a foreword from two labor attorneys, endorsements from Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute and from Scott Barash, EAP Director, Ventura County, CA, Preface, and Lengthy introduction. NASW has also published an Interview with the Author as an introduction to a blog. Please explore when you get a chance!
    Thanks. Judith Balcerzak

  9. When I was hired as a rookie reporter at the Democrat & Chronicle Newspaper in Rochester, NY, I was shocked by the newsroom discrimination. Really shocked. Most was fiercely directed at Italian Americans, who weren’t allowed to be news reporters and were ghettoed in the sports section where they could be reporters and editors and copyeditors. Although the editorial staff was about 50 percent women, women were all smacking up against the glass ceiling. There were about six black reporters and one black photographer. No Hispanics were allowed in the building. I was told by one white editor and one black reporter that jokes about Italian Americans were okay. There were no jokes about blacks but there was a lot of lamenting by blacks about unfair pay and unfair treatment.

    To make a long story short, in that newsroom, I refused to participate in any form and manner and believed that as much as I also needed to protect my job, I had to try to make some kind of contribution to try to make things were better for the next person of any race, color, creed, gender, sexual identity who came through the door. Anyway: There were incredibly big fights approaching class action litigation in that newsroom regarding gender and race. There were some modest changes but to this day, Gannett has been particularly careful about the number of black reporters in that newsroom. Six was believed to be the critical mass and only two or three were ever allowed in.

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