New method gets staff to discuss workplace bullying

noworkplaceviolence August 10, 2012 0


By: Sybille Hildebrandt


Bullying is a widespread phenomenon at places of work. Not only is bullying a problem that is destructive for the people affected, it is also expensive for employers due to lost earnings.

Therefore there are many good reasons not to sweep the problem of workplace bullying under the carpet but rather to bring it out into the light and look at it from all sides in order to analyse it thoroughly.

That was the purpose of the 8th International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment – Future Challenges, hosted by the University of Copenhagen in mid-June.

Criteria for bullying led to a definition

The many conference papers showed quite clearly that research in workplace bullying is a fast-growing subject. Research into bullying is quite new, however, and researchers have so far concentrated on determining the criteria for bullying.

Now, with the criteria in place, researchers are looking at the subject more thoroughly and with greater nuances.

“This research area is still quite young and so far we have been rather vague in our approach to it, but it is clear that we are now starting to take a more mature attitude towards it,” says Annie Høgh, an associate professor at the university’s Department of Psychology. “Researchers in this field now feel that they are properly prepared to discuss the existing definitions as a basis for a broader scientific discourse.”

The term ‘bullying’ gets people to shut up
When you ask about negative actions rather than about bullying you avoid leading questions and thus avoid generating bias, which draws a distorted picture of reality.
Åse Marie Hansen

Bullying is a difficult problem to discuss and study, and to a very great extent this is because the problem is largely taboo at workplaces.

Psychologists come up against a stone wall when they try to interview employees about workplace bullying, because as soon as an employee hears the word ‘bullying’ he or she gets scared and says nothing.

This situation has led the American psychologist Joshua E. Powell of the University of Louisville and the research team of Eva Torkelson and Daniel Bergström of Lund University to work with a completely new and different strategy, in which they don’t ask about ‘bullying’ but instead ask employees to describe what they call ‘incivility’ – impolite behaviour between employees.

According to their studies, this is a good strategy: unlike the word ‘bullying’, which causes employees to retreat into themselves, the term ‘incivility’ gets them to open up.

“The strategy also has another positive effect,” says Professor Åse Marie Hansen, of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Public Health and of the National Research Centre for the Working Environment. “When you ask about negative actions rather than about bullying you avoid leading questions and thus avoid generating bias, which draws a distorted picture of reality.”


Bullying is growing fast as a research subject – but researchers retain the classic definition of bullying, says Hansen.

She describes bullying as a form of violence that a group of people direct towards an individual person, or the individual can be excluded from a community.

Attacks can be both physical and verbal or in the form of body language, which is a quite effective way of excluding a person.

Something that really hurts the soul is ‘the silent treatment’, says Hansen, who adds that it was therefore one of the subject areas that the conference focused on.

‘The silent treatment’ is a generic term for all forms of behaviour aimed at excluding a colleague.

Typical examples are if colleagues leave the tearoom as soon as you enter it; if colleagues don’t ask if you want to go with them for lunch; and if colleagues move away if you sit down at a conference table.

“The central aspect of bullying is that the attacks are repeated over a longer period,” says Hansen. “Thus it differs from isolated negative behaviour such as teasing or angry outbursts that one can experience in any community.”

Spiral of escalation connects the harmless act with the harmful

The problem with bullying is that it often starts as something minor, e.g. in connection with a harmless conflict that in itself cannot be said to be bullying. But over time these minor conflicts can turn into a major and harmful conflict.

The spiral of escalation was introduced at the conference as a tool to illustrate that small, harmless problems can grow into something big and harmful, and turn into real bullying if the situation is allowed to escalate.

“You can use the spiral as a preventive tool because it shows that small and large problems are connected, that you risk a situation will get out of hand if you’re not careful,” says Høgh.

Complex interplay

Both Hansen and Høgh emphasise that bullying is rarely triggered by just one thing.

Bullying arises as a result of a complex interplay among many factors. It is therefore necessary to intervene at many different levels to prevent and resolve the problem.

“If you wish to combat bullying effectively, you must identify the problem and intervene from many different angles, such as looking at it from the viewpoint of the individuals involved, the employer and the legislation,” says Hansen.

This article was written by Sybille Hildebrandt and originally published on sciencenordic


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