Understanding and Preventing Workplace Bullying

by | Sep 15, 2020 | Team Working

Workplace Bullying and Aggression

In an age when organizations are striving to be transparent, open, and promote a culture of psychological safety, occurrences of workplace bullying and aggression are usually quickly dealt with so that the involved parties can find a resolution, and productivity and wellbeing isn’t severely impacted. But why are some people more aggressive at work than others? Is it something to do with a person’s natural temperament, or is there a build-up due to factors outside of the person’s control, either in the workplace itself or in wider society?

Biology and life experience

It isn’t surprising to hear that the degree to which someone is aggressive in the workplace depends a bit on their upbringing and life experience, their biology, and the immediate situation that they find themselves in. For example, the levels of hormones such as testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin seem to play a role in predisposing someone towards acting aggressively, while there is also an indication that genetics is important, shown by researchers studying twins and those adopted at birth. Many life experience factors also play a role, including the degree to which aggression was normalized or legitimized when someone was growing up as a child, as well as direct or vicarious experience of aggression during childhood and adolescence.

Personality differences

But theories of temperament and personality also point to individual differences at the level of the mind. For example, the degree to which someone shows the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness can influence how aggressive they might be in challenging situations. There is also a “dark triad” of personality profiles, including psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, which are particularly associated with aggressive tendencies. For example, evidence suggests that a person’s self-esteem is a crucial factor in aggression, but it’s not a straightforward relationship of high or low self-esteem being related to aggression, instead, it seems to be the fragility of that self-esteem and the over-inflation of one’s self-image that is important –  which is where narcissistic tendencies come in.

Aggression in the moment

But what is also very clear from the science is that aggression isn’t an inevitable result of someone’s predispositions.  Because there are a whole host of situational factors that can also play a role in determining whether someone will choose to be aggressive in the moment, these can include things that are as innocuous as the temperature of the room or how noisy it is, or how sleep-deprived, frustrated or hungry someone is at that moment.

But another primary driver of workplace bullying and aggression is thought to be the stress and strain that employees find themselves under, either at work or home. And as we realize more and more the extra stress and strain that living and working through this pandemic is putting us all through, it is not surprising that tempers are fraying a bit more easily these days than they might have in the past and emphasises the need for us all to give our colleagues a bit more time, space and understanding.

How to prevent aggression and bullying.

But as well as the severe personal harm that bullying and aggression does to the employee who is being targeted, aggression in the workplace has broader implications for organizations because of its ability to impact work performance, motivation and morale negatively and deplete the emotional and cognitive resources of those involved. So as an organization, what can you do to prevent workplace bullying and aggression? 

  1. Have an open-door policy: Although people can be reticent about reporting bullying, having an open-door policy can go some way to encouraging people to speak out. 
  1. Recognizing aggression: Although there are overt forms of aggression and bullying that are easier to spot, some forms of aggression (what’s called indirect or relational aggression) are sometimes more subtle and, therefore, more difficult to identify, but still can cause severe harm. Making sure your employees know what constitutes bullying and aggression through appropriate training is a good way to address this. 
  1. Deal with complaints swiftly: Once identified, it is unlikely that the issue will go away of its own accord. Dealing quickly and empathetically with the issue on both sides, not only sends a message that there is zero-tolerance for bullying and aggression but also means that the harm is minimized.
  2. Promote a strong workplace culture of psychological safety: Some workplace cultures are definitely more toxic than others, providing a feeding ground for aggressive tendencies. Making sure your organization creates a positive culture that shuts out aggression and values respect, openness and empathy sets the groundwork for a happy, healthy and productive workforce.

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