Bullying in a Workplace

On Valentine’s Day, February 14 2011, New York Times ran an article “Web of Popularity, Achieved by Bullying” by Tara Parker-Pope—recent research shows interesting patterns in bullying and victimhood distribution in the school student body. As I was reading the article, I realized that much of what is being described there had a direct parallel in a workplace. I don’t have the data to back this up, but I had personal experiences giving me some anecdotal evidence. Perhaps you have had similar experiences as well (academia is ripe with them).

To make my point I’ll quote part of the article below and use bold on text that I’ve replaced in the article: students to co-workers; student body to employees, and so on.


Web of Popularity, Achieved by Bullying


For many employees navigating the social challenges of a workplace, the ultimate goal is to become part of the “popular” crowd.

But new research suggests that the road to workplace popularity can be treacherous, and that employees near the top of the social hierarchy are often both perpetrators and victims of aggressive behavior involving their peers.

The latest findings, being published this month in The American Sociological Review, offer a fascinating glimpse into the social stratification of the workplace. The new study, along with related research from the University of California, Davis, also challenges the stereotypes of both workplace bully and victim.

Highly publicized cases of bullying typically involve chronic harassment of socially isolated workers, but the latest studies suggest that various forms of workplace aggression and victimization occur throughout the social ranks as co-workers jockey to improve their status.

The findings contradict the notion of the workplace bully as maladjusted or aggressive by nature. Instead, the authors argue that when it comes to mean behavior, the role of individual traits is “overstated,” and much of it comes down to concern about status.

“Most victimization is occurring in the middle to upper ranges of status,” said the study’s author, Robert Faris, an assistant professor of sociology at U.C. Davis. “What we think often is going on is that this is part of the way individuals strive for status. Rather than going after the employees on the margins, they might be targeting co-workers who are rivals.”

Managers and spouses are often unaware of the daily stress and aggression with which even socially well-adjusted workers must cope.

“It may be somewhat invisible,” Dr. Faris said. “The literature on bullying has so focused on this one dynamic of repeated chronic antagonism of socially isolated individuals that it ignores these other forms of aggression. It’s entirely possible that one act, one rumor spread on the Internet could be devastating.”

The researchers used the data to construct complex social maps of the workplace, tracking groups of friends and identifying the individuals who were consistently at the hub of social life. “It’s not simply the number of friends the person has, it’s who their friends are,” Dr. Faris said. “The people we’re talking about are right in the middle of things.”

Using the maps, the researchers tracked the employees most often accused of aggressive behavior. They found that increases in social status were associated with subsequent increases in aggression. But notably, aggressive behavior peaked at the 98th percentile of popularity and then dropped.

“At the very top you start to see a reversal — the employees in the top 2 percent are less likely to be aggressive,” Dr. Faris said. “The interpretation I favor is that they no longer need to be aggressive because they’re at the top, and further aggression could be counterproductive, signaling insecurity with their social position.

“It’s possible that they’re incredibly friendly and everybody loves them and they were never mean, but I’m not so convinced by that, because there are so many co-workers right behind them in the hierarchy who are highly aggressive.”

Over all, the research shows that about a third of employees are involved in aggressive behavior. In another paper presented last year, Dr. Faris reported that most workplace aggression is directed at social rivals — “maybe one rung ahead of you or right beneath you,” as he put it, “rather than the co-worker who is completely unprotected and isolated.”

“It’s not to say those individuals don’t get picked on, because they do,” he said. “But the overall rate of aggression seems to increase as status goes up. What it suggests is that a co-worker thinks they get more benefit to going after somebody who is a rival.”

The research offers a road map for managers struggling to curb bullying and aggression both inside and outside of the company. One option may be to enlist the support of workers who aren’t engaged in bullying — those at the very top of the social ladder, and the two-thirds who don’t bully.

I rings true, doesn’t it?

Please read the entire article here: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/web-of-popularity-weaved-by-bullying/?src=me&ref=homepage