Workplace bullying and interpersonal conflict are two very different concepts, but do you know how to tell the difference?

Under Australian laws and guidelines, both Fair Work and health and safety, bullying in Australia has three key characteristics.

  1. Unreasonable behaviour,
  2. That behaviour is repeated, and
  3. That behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

However, if you are looking for a legal definition of conflict in Australia, you will be hard pressed to find one.

Yet in our workplaces, we can often find ourselves in conflict with others, and sometimes this does walk the line, or get confused with, workplace bullying. And often conflict, when unaddressed, can escalate into workplace bullying.

How can you tell the difference between workplace bullying and interpersonal conflict?

One study took an in-depth dive into the difference, and we will explore those outcomes to help us understand the difference between bullying and interpersonal conflict.

The study explored five commonly mentioned elements of workplace bullying and explored evidence in the difference. It focused on two cohorts; those who were targets (they use the term victim, but not a word I tend to use) of workplace bullying and those who were not.

1. Frequency

Frequent, or repeated behaviour, is one of the core elements of workplace bullying in Australian definitions. Under the Fair Work Act, for something to be bullying, it must generally be a repeated pattern of behaviour over a period of time.

In contrast, interpersonal conflict can be a single incident. While there can be a series of incidents in interpersonal conflict, it is not required to be so.

In this research, targets of workplace bullying reported a higher rate of incidents over the time of the study, which was completed over two time periods. Bullied targets reported on average twice as many conflicts at work, 13.6 per person, compared to the average of 6.9 conflict incidents for the non-target group.

2. Negative social behaviour

This element captures “unreasonable behaviour” in the Australian definition. Negative social behaviours at work can be work-related (eg. undermining, devaluing and employees work or effort) or person-related (eg humiliation, ridiculing, or social isolation). An interpersonal conflict does not necessarily incorporate these types of behaviours and can arise as soon as a person feels blocked and/or irritated from achieving their aim or goal. It doesn’t necessarily include that unreasonable behaviour.

The research supported this outcome. The bullied target group reported 4565 conflicts with negative social behaviour. This was 9.7 conflicts per person or 1.3 conflicts per week.

Comparatively, the non-target group reported in total 136 conflicts with negative social behaviour, averaging 2.2 per person and 0.3 conflicts per week in the same time period.

3. Imbalance of power

An imbalance of power is a concept that doesn’t have a place in the Australian definition, perhaps because of it’s subjective nature. However, it does have a place in theory and research, often terming bullying as an attack against which a target has an inability to defend oneself. This power can be either formal or informal, which is why a target can be either a lower ranked employee or a manager experiencing upwards bullying.

An interpersonal conflict simply does not need to have the element of a power imbalance to be an interpersonal conflict.

The targets in this research, when compared to their non-bullied counterparts, responded that they felt more inferior in the conflict and less able to positively influence the situation.

4. A long-lasting process

This element again links to the repeated behaviour in the Australian definition. With targets feeling inferior and less able to positively influence the situation, their ability to stop behaviours that are bullying in nature is diminished. Over time, their own personal resources to cope are diminished and drained, and this leads to the third element in the Australian definition, the risk to health and safety. Time and again research has linked bullying to injury, both physical and psychological.

Interpersonal conflict, as has been stated, can be one incident and does not necessarily continue over time.

In the research, bullied targets reported higher levels of conflict continuation. For non-bullied targets, the interpersonal conflict was more than twice as likely to be resolved within the same day; and three times as likely to be solved within the same conflict situation.

5. Perceived Intent

Similar to the power imbalance, intent does not play a part in Australian bullying legislation and guidelines. Regardless of intent, bullying behaviours are a psychosocial hazard and it is an employers duty, as far as is reasonable practicable, to eliminate such risks under health and safety obligations.

However, broader research suggests that bullying can either contain an element of actual intent or perceived intent by the target. This is because the longer a bullying episode goes on, it is harder to believe a person who uses bullying type behaviours doesn’t know the impact or consequences of their behaviour.

In this research, targets of bullying perceived more negative intentions when compared to non-bullied counterparts. They described them as more intentional and malicious, and as a result of parties who simply did not care to prevent the negative consequences of the situation.

Those not targeted with bullying behaviour descriptors included that there had been, despite the conflict, positive intent. The perception was that the conflicted had occurred either by accident or it had been executed in an unlucky manner.

In summary…

If you are at work, trying to work out whether a scenario is bullying or interpersonal conflict, you are looking for the following.

Bullying is:

  • Includes negative social behaviour (work-related and/or person related)
  • Repeatedly frequent and longer lasting negative social behaviour leading to harm and injury risk
  • Likely to include an actual, or a perception of, a power imbalance against which a target cannot defend themselves against
  • Likely to include an actual or perception that there is an intent to harm out of the negative social behaviour by the user of bullying behaviours

Interpersonal conflict is:

  • More likely to be resolved within a day or the single conflict issue situation
  • Less likely to involve negative social behaviour
  • More of a perception of equal power by parties involved in the conflict
  • More likely to have arisen out of positive intention or by error.

Reference are linked in the above article