Workplace bullying and psychological safety. They are two separate concepts that could be inextricably linked. But are they?

Direct research specifically linking the two concepts is rare and in this article we explore the research that does exist, particularly considering the context of employee silence.

The Silence within Psychological Safety

“A culture of silence is thus not only one that inhibits speaking up but one in which people fail to listen
thoughtfully to those who do speak up – especially when they are bringing unpleasant news.”
Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation

Let’s start with the concept of silence within psychological safety. In a psychologically safe workplace, employees have an ability to speak up and say what they think or engaging in constructive discussion without the risk of of rejection or ridicule. The group, and each team member within that group, will respect each others thoughts and competencies.

In her book, The Fearless Organisation, Amy Edmondson presents psychological safety, or the lack there of, as being heavily rooted in silence. Where there are low levels of psychological safety, a culture of silence can thrive and that silence leads to harm in the workplace that could have been prevented. Edmondson writes that silence can lead to “widespread frustration, anxiety, depression, and even physical harm” as when employees see something unsafe or wrong, they can fear reporting it. She mentions that silence can also be the case when an employee feels bullied or intimidated by someone.

Silence and Workplace Bullying

Silence is a concept that is also associated with workplace bullying. Over the years, research has pointed to a low level of employee complaints and grievances having been lodged to someone in authority in relation to workplace bullying. This lack of reporting is driven by fear and futility.

Employees feel fear because of perceived retaliation that may present as increased abuse from the perpetrator of the bullying behaviour, a loss of career opportunities, or even their employment. The fear has also been linked to conflict avoidance.

In regards to futility, employees may believe that speaking up would have no positive impact on the situation. The result of this is employee silence, both target and bystander.

Connecting Psychological Safety and Workplace Bullying

Both psychological safety and workplace bullying research have similarities in silence behaviour. But what does available research say? Is it supported at all?

In their recent review of the progress of psychological safety research, Edmondson and Bransby identified the potential for psychological safety to aid employees in coping with workplace stress and strain, highlighting that some research reported significant associations with incivility and bullying. They indicate that low psychological safety can contribute to workplace bullying.

Let’s look at those studies and what they found. It should be noted the following studies utilised Edmondson’s measures of psychological safety as a measuring tool.

Bystanders, Workplace Bullying and Psychological Safety

In a 2018 study, the researchers explored the relationship between psychological safety at work (exploring the concept at colleague, supervisory and organisational levels) and bystander responses to bullying (whether they responded with high or low involvement or interventions). The researchers also delved into factors that deter observers from formally reporting bullying. This study focused on Irish Nurses and Midwives with just under 3000 respondents. Of those, 71% had observed bullying in the workplace in the prior six months.

The majority (54.6%) of respondents reported not feeling comfortable reporting or taking any action on the bullying, therefore staying silent. If employees were willing to take action, they (64.1%) reported it was more likely to be low level involvement. This low level involvement would be an informal discussion with colleagues or supervisor. Only 10% indicated they would make a formal report to a supervisor.

The reasons they provided for not being comfortable with taking action was negative career consequences, perceived perpetrator power, expectations of being isolated and lack of organisational support.

Of note in this study was that:

  • higher levels of psychological safety increased the likelihood of bystanders directly confronting the user of bullying behaviour;
  • perceptions of higher supervisor safety and support lead to a greater chance of formally reporting an incident;
  • where supervisor support and psychological safety was low, it was less likely bystanders would take action upon witnessing bullying;
  • where safety was felt primarily amongst colleagues, and not within the organisation or supervisors, bystanders were likely to engage in low level interventions with colleagues (eg provide support to each other and discuss behaviours amongst themselves), but not confront the user of bullying behaviours or report it to a supervisor.

Overall, where perceptions of the organisation or those in power within an organisation are perceived to be unsafe and unsupportive, bystanders to bullying are less likely to intervene. The findings suggest proactive high level of involvement will only occur in an environment where levels of perceived organisational safety are high. Therefore, indicators were that where psychological safety was high, employee silence was reduced in relation to workplace bullying.

Bullying and Work Disengagement

A second study of American nurses explored the role of employee work disengagement as a result of workplace bullying and the role of psychological safety. This study found the higher the perception of psychological safety, the less likely the nurses would experience or witness workplace bullying. Employee experience of bullying was associated with higher levels of work disengagement, but witnessing bullying at work was not.

This study looked at both psychological safety and competence development in lowering the levels of work disengagement in relation to workplace bullying. while it found both had a positive impact, it was unclear if the competence development occurred before or after the experience of bullying. However, the study did indicate that psychological safety did reduce workplace bullying and disengagement from their work of the nursing respondents.

While this study didn’t explore the concept of silence, it does highlight the important link that psychological safety can play in reducing bullying at work.

Bullying and Employee Silence

In 2020, a research paper explored the connection between workplace bullying and employee silence, exploring the mediating role of psychological safety. This research targeted more than 300 Chinese respondents in the public and private sector over two time periods. They found workplace bullying was linked to employee silence. However, where there was psychological safety, employee silence was reduced.

Interestingly, this research also explored the level of connection between employees within the workplaces (called affective commitment). The higher the level of psychological safety, the greater the affective commitment of employees. This also had a buffering effect on employee silence in situations of workplace bullying.

Ultimately, this research barely scratches the surface of the role that psychological safety may play in preventing workplace bullying. There is room for much more research to be completed.

What we do know is that bullying leads to employee silence which can lead to significant harm. We also know that within an environment where psychological safety prevails, employees will speak up and add their voice their concerns. As Edmondson says “we live and work in communities, cultures, and organizations in which not speaking up can be hazardous to human health”.

Creating psychological safety is one of the tools we must consider using, and to some extent experimenting with, at work prevent our employees from being injured by bullying.


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