Why do employees who bully or use chronically abrasive behaviours perpetrate their behaviours?

It’s a question that is often met with a roll off the tongue answer because organisations let them. And this to some extent is true. Yet, workplace bullying theory points us to a more complex framework in which different individual, group, organisational and societal systems interact leading to the bullying and abrasive behaviours we experience or witness at work.

A recent paper, by Vranjes et al, that was recently released may assist in the development of future interventions on an individual scale. The paper explores interpersonal workplace aggression perpetration and, within that, the role of sense making, especially in the face of bystander action.

Our question is whether the framework they present is one of the keys that can help us resolve and prevent workplace bullying perpetration? This is especially pertinent since those who use these harmful behaviours are often moved between workplace departments or move on to other workplaces where the risk of behaviours and associated harm continues, unless more effective individualised interventions are found.

What is Sense-Making?

Sense-making is a process through which individuals and organisations give meaning to events and situations.

In the context of Vranjes et al’s work, perpetrators of interpersonal workplace aggression (which can range from incivility to bullying), sense making includes a process whereby the perpetrator interprets an intervention in their behaviour.

In this case, the intervention is from bystanders to that behaviour. Therefore, in relation to the perpetrators response, what impact does bystander intervention have on sense-making? With bystander behaviour commonly promoted as a solution to behaviours like bullying and harassment at work, this is an important question as it asks us to think about the ultimate outcome of bystander invention and whether it is a tenable countermeasure.

Exploring theory to find possible solution

This work draws together research and theory that argues at our core we all want to innately create and maintain positively viewed identities. When a bystander, whomever they may be, intervenes, a perpetrator’s sense of their own positive identity is challenged. This in turn triggers perceptions of identity threat.

In Vranjes et al’s own words, a bystander intervention:

“provides a powerful dose of negative feedback about a person or the way they interact with others in the workplace, which can threaten a workers sense of positive self-meaning. An intervention casts an employee into the role of ‘perpetrator’ suggesting that this person has committed an immoral and harmful act toward another person”

This sense making as an identity threat will most commonly result in defensive responses. This might include an increase in interpersonal workplace aggression, increasing their negative behaviour towards their initial target or those who attempt an intervention, increasing the likelihood of harm.

However, under certain circumstances, perpetrators can exit defensive sense making and reshape their thinking as an opportunity for growth. For example, one such circumstance might be delaying interventions with the perpetrator, allowing them to return to a calmer state of mind and a reduced likelihood they with perceive an intervention as an attack on their moral identity.

Can Change Work?

This work provides us food for thought in relation to how we can encourage change in individuals who perpetrate interpersonal aggression at work including chronic abrasive behaviours, incivility and workplace bullying. Vranjes et al gives us a framework that researchers can use to analyse perpetrator responses to bystander interventions.

However, the framework itself aligns with the Boss Whispering style of coaching abrasive leaders. In this process, workplace leaders, whether they are business owners, senior managers or HR professionals adopt the role of bystanders who intervene. Engagement in the coaching is demonstrative of sense making and the ability to reshape behaviours of perpetrators.

This coaching style invites perpetrators of interpersonal workplace aggression to participate in a change process. Some of those individuals choose not to participate. My own experience is that those who choose not to do not see their own behaviour as being problematic and, as has happened, suggest the behaviour is not their problem, but those who may be lodging complaints about bullying behaviour.

Yet, those who don’t engage is contrasted against those who have engaged in the coaching which presents anecdotal evidence that perpetrators can use bystander intervention to exit defensive sense making as an opportunity to learn and grow. While they may engage in the process with fear and trepidation (afterall, we are about to rip off some blinders about their behaviour), they do engage with willingness to learn.

As we all know, there are individuals who use interpersonal workplace aggression and they often use a pattern of behaviour from one role to the next, and from one workplace to the next. Working with them on an individual level to change their behaviour offers an opportunity to create safer workplaces, but is it one we are willing to explore? That’s a whole different question.


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