Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it?

(Image courtesy of Clipartpanda.com)

As I wrote earlier this year, workplace bullying and mobbing “usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference.” Indeed, if we take this a step further, we see that workplace abuse is enabled by formal and informal systems of people and networks.

Those who study social work or organizational behavior learn about systems theory, which is basically a fancy way of saying that human roles and interactions are complex, interrelated, and intertwined, culminating in systems that produce certain results. With workplace bullying and mobbing, dysfunctional or hostile systems inflict injuries on targets and protect their abusers. Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Countervailing power

On previous occasions here, I have invoked economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of countervailing power. In the 1950s, Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over the division of profits with the titans of business and investment. Today, some labor unions help to safeguard their members against bullying and mobbing; others get a failing grade in this regard. In any event, with less than 12 percent of the American workforce currently unionized, few workers can even theoretically turn to unions to protect them from mistreatment on the job.

Accordingly, most workers who face bullying at work today do so without any kind of protective system to stand up to the forces that are abusing them. Sure, they can retain a lawyer, seek counseling and health care, and otherwise attempt to create a “loose parts” network to help them, but the organized, countervailing power to which Galbraith referred isn’t present. If their employer doesn’t take work abuse seriously, they’re basically looking at a lonely fight.

I don’t have any easy answers at this point. Instead, I’ll simply say that we need to (1) revive the labor movement in the form of strong, pro-member unions that understand the harm wrought by work abuse; and (2) create other entities that can help bullied workers in a more powerful, assertive way. We also need plenty more public education about workplace bullying and mobbing in order to build widespread objection to these forms of interpersonal abuse. 

6 responses

  1. I have created a paper trail over the years showing multiple attempts to get professional associations to address specific manager behaviors like wrongful termination. To get this on the agenda at conferences. Year after year many emails go unanswered. But, maybe once a year I get a few acknowledged emails. Even promises to advance my suggestions to committees. I tried the ethics route. I tried standards and competencies. All have been dead ends. I can only conclude that these organizations are trying to protect abusive members. Plus, these institutions are not about to give up their most effective weapon of control. The fear of job loss.

  2. David, You might seriously consider that it is the systems thinking itself that enables what you describe in the article. Dr. Ralph Stacey’s work does an excellent job of explaining why this is so. The short version is that the systems perspective, for all the many positive “everything is connected” things it does, simultaneously enables the illusion of control in human relating. It is this illusion that is at the heart of the organizational enabling, if not outright encouraging of the bullying and mobbing you so passionately seek to end. Although I deeply empathize with the notion of countervailing power and an end to the horror, it is really advocacy of a “arms race” that can never be won. Until we address the underlying philosophical error and directly address human relating, we will continue to be frustrated in our efforts.

    • Dr. Welsh, thank you for posing an interesting and thought provoking theory in response to this post.

      I respectfully disagree with its general application to workplace bullying and mobbing, however, and here’s why: Many targets of workplace abuse initially see the mistreatment as emanating from the immediate and primary aggressors. Far from thinking about systems, they see it on a more interpersonal level at first, and understandably so. It’s only when they get deeper into the situation — especially by reporting or challenging the mistreatment — that they realize that the aggressors have the support — covertly or overtly — of the larger organizational system. By then it’s often too late for them, and they lose their job.

      Right now this is all too often like an “arms race,” to use your term, in which an abusive superpower is pitted against Liechtenstein, with the latter unaware until it’s too late that it’s not just one rifle being aimed from across the border. Or, to put it in a relational frame, targeted individuals often are all too trusting in assuming that no such system exists and that the organization will respond in an ethical and appropriate manner.

      This does not preclude the existence of organizations that operate in the relational manner that you and I favor, but we’re not talking about those kinds of places in this context.

  3. I was bullied, mobbed, and physically and sexually assaulted in the workplace at a large state agency. I was forced to quit. I went everywhere inside and outside agencies for help. It all went on deaf ears.
    I am not sure about private agencies, however I do know working for a state agency you lose all rights as the system fails you at all levels.
    I am still fighting for my rights and will not give up until I get justice.

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