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Lead Your Team Managing

Why Taming the Office Bully Isn't Easy

Workplace Bully Credit: Dean Drobot

Whether it's to stand up to them or report them to a superior, employees get a wide range of advice on how to deal with bullying at work. Although many times those recommendations come from those who have also been harassed in the office, it often doesn't make the situation any better, new research finds.

The study in the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research found the advice that victims of workplace bullying receive more often than not either made no difference or made the situation worse.

For the study, researchers interviewed 48 employees about their experiences with workplace bullying, the advice they received and what advice, if any, they had given others on the subject.

Part of the difficulty in dealing with workplace bullying is that the advice victims receive often has them adopt an exclusively rational response to what may be a highly irrational experience, according to the study. For example, victims of bullying are regularly told to remain calm and try to control their emotions.

"For some targets, following advice to remain calm serves the developmental purpose of a single target, but does little to stop the bully," the study's authors wrote. "For other targets, advice to remain calm triggers additional frustration and the belief that the advice-giver fails to understand what targets are going through."

At other times, the advice offered to victims of workplace bullying is to take a more proactive stance and stand up to the bully. However, this causes problems in itself, because if the bully is a superior, it could put the victim's job in jeopardy.

"This study helped illuminate a paradox of workplace bullying advice where following the advice would be dangerous (i.e. escalation of the situation or loss of job) and not following it and doing nothing would produce no change in a harmful situation," the study's authors wrote.

Even though they know the advice wasn't effective for them, many victims of workplace bullying pass it on to others experiencing similar situations.

"Targets of workplace bullying continue to validate the sensibility of common advice while at the same time disavowing its usefulness," the researchers wrote. "By downplaying emotion and working within a framework of what sounds reasonable and rational within most organizations, the paradox of workplace bullying advice constricts the ability to imagine a broader range of alternative responses."

The advice often puts the responsibility on the victim to singlehandedly stop the problem. 

"These responses place responsibility solely in the hands of the target and in doing so silences discussions that could contribute to alliance building and collective action," the study's authors wrote. "Loved ones and colleagues mean well when they share advice; however, the sharing of advice needs to be approached cautiously. Listeners need to be aware of the social and political complexity of bullying, which presents targets with far more constraints than opportunities."

Rather than being quick to offer advice, the researchers believe that simply listening can sometimes provide the best outcomes.

"Instead of rushing to give advice, a communication process that creates a dyadic one-up, one-down situation and repeats the one-down situation in which targets already find themselves, the best type of response may be to provide social support by listening to targets, validating their experience, and reassuring them that they are not alone," the study authors wrote.

In the end, the study's authors believe if advice is to be given, it is important to comprehend the strong emotions at play in order for it to be effective. 

"Validating the strong emotions of bullying can create alternative spaces where targets and their allies can begin to imagine more potent options for disrupting cycles of workplace abuse," the researchers wrote.

The study was authored by Stacy Tye-Williams, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, and Kathleen J. Krone, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.