In previous essays I've discussed some of my concerns with the use of the bully label, the failure to distinguish between workplace and schoolyard bullying, and the need to distinguish workplace bullying from workplace mobbing. Now, as the year comes to a close and top ten lists rise like hit songs on a pop chart, I'd like to provide my own top ten reasons for rethinking the current anti-bully hysteria.
1. In the understandable rush to eradicate mean-spirited and aggressive people in the workplace, there is a tendency to move from anti-bully to pro-mobbing and encourage people to gang up and eliminate anyone labeled a bully.
2. As awareness about bullying behavior grows, so too does the hysteria surrounding it, so that once a person is accused they are assumed to be guilty and vilified, regardless of their actual behavior or intent.
3. Even if a person does exhibit "bullying" behaviors, they are operating in the context of a specific organizational culture; the anti-bully focus is on the individual, not the organizational dynamics that might foster it.
4. By failing to distinguish interpersonal bullying from collective mobbing, much of the advice given to targets of workplace aggression may escalate their suffering by provoking management's retaliation and transforming bullying to mobbing.
5. Workplace bullying includes a power dynamic that is absent in schoolyard bullying, and although the processes are very similar, their differences are significant. The two forms of interpersonal aggression should be discussed with different terminology, strategies and objectives.
6. The "bully" focus tends to minimize group psychology, looking for convenient scapegoats and exempting others from responsibility when their aggression is collective.
7. Just as "bullies" are viewed as inherently volatile and bad, targets are viewed as inherently passive and good, and typically advised they are morally superior and did nothing to contribute to the aggression. Such views preclude any possibility of behavioral changes for anyone involved, and flies in the face of human psychology.
8. Too much of the focus on bullies has become associated with a single political perspective, namely liberal Democrats, even though interpersonal aggression affects a diversity of political interests.
9. Aggressive behavior in the workplace does indeed damage people's lives and livelihoods, yet by calling for the elimination of workers labeled bullies, encouraging gossip and sabotage of anyone accused of bullying, and making anonymous reports against alleged "bullies," workplace aggression has the potential to increase.
10. The rhetoric is very negative and exclusionary, rather than focusing on how workplaces and other organizations can become more compassionate and humane toward others.
Interpersonal aggression is indeed a serious problem, and any form of aggression in our workplaces, schools and other organizations merits attention and remedies. But how we view the problem will shape how we address it. And as we move closer to ideological orthodoxy in how we approach it, all I see is an even bigger problem in the making.