Have you ever worked in a company or organisation where it resembled a battlefield more than a workplace? Where whispered conversations in the corridors, the kitchen or around the photocopier stop when management, the perceived enemy, walked in? Or team meetings were either openly combative or you could cut the atmosphere with the proverbial knife? Amongst this, the word bullying was thrown around the office more than the word coffee?

This could be a sign that you were in the midst of employee resistance to workplace bullying. There is a myth that a user of bullying behaviour in workplaces has exclusive control of power. However, this is not always the case. In fact, resistance can be a strong characteristic of workplace bullying, usually to the detriment of your company or organisation.

The five key forms of bullying resistance

I was recently working with an organisation with similar behaviours as the one I described above. For convenience I am going to give the company the fictional name of The Smith Company. The Smith Company had employed a new manager who was strong on technical skills and knowledge, but lacking in people management skills. She was very much an abrasive leader. The impact of her behaviour rippled out across the office team and resulted in workplace bullying resistance.

Workplace bullying researcher, Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, identified that resistance to bullying in the workplace can present in five key forms. All five of these forms became evident in The Smith Company. I am going to use this to helps us to understand the dynamic of workplace bullying resistance.

Bullying Resistance, Workplace Bullying

Exodus involves employees quitting, intentions or threats to do so, transfer requests and actual transfers, and helping others to leave. In The Smith Company, a few employees resigned, while there were a number of conversations about the desire to leave. Interestingly, while this was the case, a significant number of The Smith Company employees remained remarking that they had experienced this type of behaviour before and they just had to “ride it out”. However, leaving is a common way for employees to demonstrate their resistance to workplace bullying.

Collective Voice

In this form of resistance, employees develop shared action plans, back up peers, and protect co-workers and subordinates. The Smith Company experienced a high incidence of the collective voice. Employees shared their experience of their manager. The employees found that they were not alone in their experience and agreement was spread amongst each other. This process is called contagion. It lead to them acting together against their manager and, in effect, the organisation.

Reverse Discourse

Employees embrace labels like troublemaker under reverse discourse. They access influential allies to shift the power towards themselves. In The Smith Company, employees engaged an external ally in their union. In other situations, employees may engage an internal ally (eg. a board member) or other external allies (eg. a lawyer). Grievances and processes of documentation are often linked with accessing allies. In The Smith Company, a number of individuals lodged formal grievances against their manager.

Subversive Dis(obedience)
Targets often increase their commitment to work as an initial response to stop workplace bullying behaviours. When this doesn’t result in positive change (it often doesn’t), employees give up and withdraw labour. Employees of The Smith Company demonstrated this form of resistance with overt statements that they were working to rule, doing what was absolutely required or what was minimum. The resistance through distance strategies were part of their response with employees increasing taking leave or being out of the office when their manager was present. Hostile gossip and character assassination was part of the resistance, with those employees sharing their experience of their manager, and the company, to other organisational offices and those outside the business. A clear message was emanating from employees of don’t come and work in our office and don’t come and work in our organisation. Further characteristics of subversive disobedience can be withholding information and fantasies of hurting the person using bullying behaviours.

This includes face-to-face conversations with the person using bullying behaviour or public challenges, sometimes through ridiculing or humour. Within The Smith Company, this occurred both individually and in public including team meetings.

It is interesting that participants in Lutgen-Sandvik’s research, employees identified resistance as being high-risk. The majority identified being bullied by individuals above them who had a perceived power to fire them. Job loss was a constant fear, while the bully also had access to higher managers who could reframe stories in ways that harmed targets and witnesses. They also believed their responses triggered more abuse and retaliation. This inherent risk is why the majority of resistance is covert.

An unexpected side effect of workplace bullying resistance

Ironically for The Smith Family employees, there was an unexpected side effect. Their resistance made it more difficult for the organisation to resolve the overall situation. In the use of their collective voice, the employees refused to address their grievances one on one as they had been individually lodged, insisting on a group grievance approach. This meant that a fair process of complaint resolution was not able to be implemented. Therefore, strategies to address the concerns of the employees faltered.

In reality, the manager who was accused could have argued that she was being bullied by the employees. Ultimately, the organisation used a costly payout to resolve their problem, in effect rewarding what was allegedly bad behaviour.

It is not hard for us to understand that bullying, and its associated resistance, equals ineffective and unproductive workplaces. The focus becomes fighting for survival rather than the core business goals. Creativity is stifled as employees choose to do the minimum they are expected and adhere closely to their job role. Co-operation is placed second to combat.

These are all problems than can be resolved. That being said, preventing them, so you don’t find resistance to workplace bullying in your organisation or company, is a much better solution!

Lutgen-Sandvik, Pamela, Adult Bullying – A Nasty Piece of Work, ORCM Academic Press, USA, 2013

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