An Introduction to the Psychodynamics of Workplace Bullying

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This book gives in-depth insights into the core issues of workplace bullying from the perspectives of the individuals involved, their interpersonal relationships, the group dynamics and organisational contexts. Workplace bullying is costly: increasingly petty conflicts are being registered as formal complaints and, in no time, legalities take over and costs spiral out of control. Preventive actions and interventions need to be based on a sound knowledge of the deeper issues which foster bullying scenarios.This book gets to the roots of why and how bullying occurs. Four main chapters are devoted to individuals, interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, and organisational contexts. The fifth chapter is a case study of the 'turn round' of a workplace in which bullying was rife. There are three recurring themes: recognition, loss, and space. New ways of conceptualising bullying are presented from drawing on the literature on the subject, as well as a range of psychodynamics theories. Bullying is described as a perverse and pernicious form of projective identification, occurring around organisational vacuums and structural fractures. Individuals, seeking recognition, get trapped in what the author terms 'a dance of death'. The group dynamics fragment on the surface but collusions, at unconscious/subconscious levels, create deep impasses. A question and answer section at the end of the chapters, brings together theory and practice. The book is very structured and designed to be used as a text, or hand, book for academics, HR managers, organisational consultants, psychotherapists, counsellors and 'life coaches'.

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Chapter One: Individuals: Bullies and Victims

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Introduction

The aim of this chapter is to present in-depth insights into the motives and behaviours of bullies and victims. We begin with a review of research into bullying and then use psychoanalytical theories to explore the root causes of bullying from an intrapsychic perspective.

The first part of the chapter, the review of the research into bullying, starts with the derivation of the word “bully” and how its meaning has changed over time. Victims’ perceptions of bullying behaviour and how it impacts on them in the short and longer term are described. Then we look at the part played by victims. As there is no consensus on this topic amongst researchers, a range of views is presented, from the victim being a victim by chance to victims lacking resilience as a result of childhood experiences or alternatively being vulnerable because they differ, in some way, from the rest of the group. The behaviour of bullies is described in terms of three key characteristics: aggression, inconsistency, and envy. Key points are illustrated with case-study material.

 

Chapter Two: Interpersonal Relationships

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Introduction

This chapter focuses on the drama played out between bullies and victims. We see how their destructive interpersonal relationships evolve and become established. We find out why some targets of bullying seem to be able to cope with the psychic onslaughts of the bully, as described in Chapter One, whilst others succumb to the attacks.

The first part of the chapter is a review of the research into the interpersonal relationships between bullies and victims. Research evidence demonstrates how specific patterns of behaviours develop which evolve in stages, with victims become increasingly trapped. Coping strategies used by victims tend to be passive and/or active, but whatever course of action they take, they are often unsuccessful in finding a resolution to the conflict.

The second part of the chapter presents key psychoanalytical theories on interpersonal relationships which help us to understand how we develop our identity through each other. The theories selected are from the fields of attachment theory and intersubjective theory. Attachment theories show how our early attachments influence the formation and direction of our relationships later in life. At the core of intersubjective theories is the topic of “recognition”, which is based on the premise that we are able to, and need to, recognise other individuals as different and yet alike, and as “others” who are capable of sharing our emotional experiences.

 

Chapter Three: Groups

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Introduction

The aim of this chapter is to show how group dynamics facilitate and moderate the incidence and nature of bullying.

The chapter starts with a review of the research on group behaviour in bullying scenarios. We look at how individuals are received into groups and the factors which influence how well they fit in. We examine the roles taken by group members. These roles are classified in a variety of ways. Most witnesses take a passive stance whilst a few become henchman and assist the bully. Very little support for victims is forthcoming from group members. Some individuals act as scapegoats on behalf of the group and are expelled. Bullying also occurs between groups.

The second part of the chapter presents a variety of theories on the unconscious and subconscious life of groups. The concept of valency is used to explore how individuals fit, or struggle to find their niche, when joining a group. During times of change, the adjustment process can be facilitated by transitional space and transitional objects. Where these are limited, the ability of individuals and groups to find creative responses to challenging situations is curtailed. We return to the theme of recognition, introduced in Chapter Two, to see how the potential for bullying can arise when individuals feel they are prevented from making a positive contribution to the group. Where there is a violation of real, or imaginary, normative expectations, employees struggle for recognition. This gives rise to shame and various related defensive responses. In the places where empathy should be there is, instead, a black hole.

 

Chapter Four: Organisations

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Introduction

This chapter deviates from the format of the previous chapters to include an extra section, at the beginning, on contextualising bullying. This addition is a description of some of the social, technological, and political contexts in which workplace bullying has taken place in the past and is occurring today. As organisations are not islands cut off from their surroundings but entities which constantly interact across their boundaries with external stakeholders and other influences, the assumption is made that we can better understand the dynamic nature of bullying in our organisations when we acknowledge and understand these evolving contexts.

This additional section is followed by a review of the research on bullying from an organisational perspective. The review begins with explanations of the structural and cultural factors which generate bullying and is followed by descriptions of styles of leadership known to foster dysfunctional employee relationships. A description is give of cyberbullying, taken mainly from research in schools. Models of bullying, illustrating its dynamic nature, are outlined. Theoretical findings are illustrated with examples from research and from anecdotal evidence collated over many years.

 

Chapter Five: A Case Study

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The aim in this chapter is to illustrate how some of the key theories of bullying from each of the four main chapters can be used to analyse a case study. This case study is an example of how an organisation, in which bullying was rife under the Former Owner, was transformed by New Management into a thriving enterprise, a market leader in its category, and a much healthier place to work.

The old ownership

The Former Owner of the organisation—a failing engineering company—had, for many years, taken every opportunity to show his contempt for the shop floor workers; for example, he regularly paraded around the factory wielding a cane with which he threatened to strike his staff. Workers were banned from the administrative offices and, in reinforcing the divide between production and administrative staff, he built a second storey especially to house these offices. This emphasised the upstairs–downstairs division. When he observed workers getting together, he regarded them with suspicion. The gathering of two or more workers on the shop floor was forbidden.

 

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