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April 25, 2010


“I wish I hadn’t cried so much” says Alice. (Realities of Adult Bullying)

by Andrea O'Connell

When considering the phenomenon of adult bullying (in cyber-space, at the workplace, or anyplace) an image and metaphor that aptly describes the experience is the scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, in which Alice floats and spins down the long and meandering tunnel of the White Rabbit’s obscure rabbit hole.

Although Alice’s rabbit hole was both whimsical and surreal in that fictional portrayal, today, the reality and the terror of such a plunge is very real.

The world is no fantasy for the target (i.e. victim) of bullying.  There is emotional violence at play.  Yes, it’s violent behavior.

The reality for the victim of bullying is persistent emotional aggression that is aimed directly and persistently at them.  Self respect can go right down the proverbial rabbit hole when it happens.

Down, down, down. Would the fall ever come to an end?” (Carroll, 1865)

Borrowing an Alice in Wonderland metaphor, when a target is under siege and gets swooped  into a rabbit hole of bullying by aggressors, they begin an implausible and impossible decent into a cold reality that is similar to a prisoner held in a land of lawlessness.  Similarly, authors Tracy, Lutgen-Sanvik, & Alberts, in their Nightmares, Demons, and Slaves: Exploring the Painful Metaphors of Workplace Bullying, present an exhaustive study that illustrates how targets of workplace abuse use various metaphorical frameworks to describe the pain and the hurt of their workplace bullying experience:

…battle, water torture, nightmare, or noxious substance. Abused workers frame bullies as narcissistic dictators, two-faced actors, and devil figures. Employees targeted with workplace bullying liken themselves to vulnerable children, slaves, prisoners, animals, and heartbroken lovers” (Tracy, et al, 2006).

Such metaphors serve to describe the extreme psychological pain felt by the victim.

Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well. (Carroll, 1865)

Workplace Bullying has grown pervasive in the 21st century.  The evidence suggests that bullying robs targets (i.e. victims) of dignity, and employers of productivity, and has grown as pervasive as sexual harassment. (Davenport, Schwartz, & Elliot, 2002, Namie & Namie, 2007, Daniel, 2006)

Authors Tracy, Alberts, and Rivera, in association with Arizona State University, for the Arizona Board of Regents, provide a self-help article for victims of bullying to help emotionally devastated victims tell their story so it is cohesive and expressed as an unemotional narrative. (Tracy, et al, 2007)

In How to Bust the Office Bully: Eight Tactics for Explaining Workplace Abuse to Decision-Makers (2007), Tracy, et al., explain that, because of the emotional and painful nature of the trauma, targets of bullying face a bigger challenge when they attempt to explain their plight.

Victims who have descended into a state of emotional despair and have difficulty expressing their story without becoming emotional, are less likely to be credible to a Human Resources (HR) group.  As it is commonly seen in today’s academic literature, the fact is that very frequently targets who tell their stories are often deemed “petty…a problem employee” and often end up holding the blame (Tracy, et al, 2007), and descending further into the rabbit hole of despair.

I wish I hadn’t cried so much!’ said Alice, as she swam about, trying to find her way out. `I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears! (Carroll, 1865)

In their popular text, The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute , and pioneers in the grassroots awareness campaign about bullying, provide a widely quoted definition of bullying:

Bullying….. is the repeated, malicious, health-endangering mistreatment of one employee (the Target) by one or more employees (the bully, bullies).  The mistreatment is psychological violence, a mix of verbal and strategic assaults to prevent the Target from performing work well.  It is illegitimate conduct in that it prevents work getting done.  Thus, an employer’s legitimate business interests are not met (Namie & Namie, 2003).

A chief difference between targets and bullies is the result of a dichotomy between cooperation and control. For the bully, there is a need and desire for total control.  Control is the foundation of all bullying. The bully’s deliberate and insidious methods to hamper the Target’s ability to succeed in either word or deed, are typical examples of a need for control resulting in aggression.

…for it might end, you know,” said Alice to herself, “in my going out altogether, like a candle…” And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out… (Carroll, 1865)

An insidious offshoot of the bullying phenomenon is called mobbing, or bullying by a group, which refers to how, either purposely or in ignorance, the target (of the bullying) is driven from the workplace by more than one person.  This is also a phenomenon that has caught on via the internet.

Psychological terror or mobbing in working life involves hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systematic manner by one or more individuals, mainly toward one individual, who, due to mobbing, is pushed into a helpless and defenseless position and held there by means of continuing mobbing activities.  These actions occur on a very frequent basis (statistical definition: at least once a week) and over a long period of time (statistical definition: at least six months’ duration). Because of the high frequency and long duration of hostile behavior, this maltreatment results in considerable mental, psychosomatic, and social misery (Namie & Namie, 2003).

Currently, there is no federal or state legislation banning workplace incivilities, aggression or bullying (HR Focus, 2008), and HR professionals are aware that the law rarely provides protection for generalized harassment claims. (Namie, 2007)

Alice felt so desperate that she was ready to ask help of any one…. she began, in a low, timid voice, `If you please, sir–‘ The Rabbit started violently, dropped the white kid gloves… (Carroll, 1865)

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. auntdeedee
    Apr 25 2010

    What is it about those who bully? Do they lack self esteem? Are they fearful of their target’s success or praise taking something away from them? Are they just plain ol’ mean-spirited without any moral convictions of what they are doing? Perhaps these bullies have been bullied and are now doing it themselves so as to keep it from happening again? A strike first tactic, if you will. Maybe their own personal lives are so out of control that bullying gives them control in at least one area of their lives. Then again, I swear, we have a generation or two of adults who just get their thrills in watching others suffer humiliation.

    How does one handle such things in the HR department? It seems unresolvable unless the bully is caught in the act-something bullies know how to prevent. A “(s)he said/they said” situation!

  2. Andrea
    Apr 25 2010

    Hey there, auntdeedee. Yes, workplace bullying is a difficult thing to prove in the workplace and currently, it has to be tied into other aspects of employment law in order for some HR groups to recognize it. In other words, if someone is bullied and they are also in a “protected class” i.e. over 40, a minority, of certain race, sexual orientation, disabled; or are called out for religious beliefs. Those are the types of things that HR has a duty to monitor and prevent. When it comes to bullying, today if the bullying happens to one of the “protected classes” then there’s legal trouble for the company.

    Other countries have laws against workplace bullying and there is a real grass-roots push in this country to make it illegal, but it’s going to be years before anything changes, I’m afraid.

    Many firms have written thier own policies against bullying, schools have policies, too. But, in the workplace, it’s tough to police.

    As far as the type of person, well, they are usually “A” types (perfectionists and controllers) and they generally are very insecure and ALWAYS feel threatened by someone with talents they don’t possess. It’s about jealousy, too, but mostly about control.

    The targets are generally good workers, have something about them the is enviable to the bully, hence they become a target (a threat). Now, this is just the most common characterization, there are other factors, too, including the fact that some people are just out-right mean!!!

    The key to dealing with some (not all ) bullies is to stand up to them. They love nothing more than a good fight and a chance to yell.

    Oh yes, the workplace can be harmful to your heath, Dee.

    • auntdeedee
      Apr 26 2010

      I’m sure glad my “workplace” is at home! No way will my dog or cats bully me! HA!

      Its a shame that people feel the need to bully others-especially those in the protected class! Yeesh! Looks like political correctness doesn’t matter to them.

      Thanks for your informative reply.
      Enjoy your night!

  3. Whitewolf
    Apr 25 2010

    After 20 yrs in an agency, I was targeted by the new boss for bullying. I was surprised and dismayed to realize that the yelling, threatening, fingers pointed in faces, etcetc…all abusive behavior in any other environment became the “management style” that I was expected to “learn to deal with”. The more I and the other targets stood up to the bullying – the worse it got… if we didn’t stand up – we were in for yelling, demeaning and demoralizing behavior anyway. It was exhausting to go to work… do you sit and let someone yell, blame, belittle you – do you confront and turn up the volume of it all. It was predictable but never ending until we left.

    Unfortunately all the tactics I researched on confronting your bully never worked… as I said … it made it worse. I moved on, the bully bullies on … unregulated and unaccountable for the destructive behavior.

    I think the bullying by a boss has different dynamics that by co-workers but both are just as destructive to the targets health and well being.

    • Andrea
      Apr 25 2010

      Hi there Whitewolf… I sure know where you’re coming from. And yes, I’ve heard stories that with some bullies, the more you stand up to them, the worse it is. And, you’re so right about the culture aspect. It’s horrendous when inexperienced managers, and those in higher positions, believe that managing means being loud, authoritative and discipline via yelling. I had a boss once who was so hateful and inexperienced, that he used to belittle every last thing I did, including when I’d get up from my desk to get coffee, or use the restroom. Sometimes he’d tell me I was too nice; sometimes I was too stupid; sometimes too quiet, and always incompetent – even when he’d take my work and call it his own. This boss didn’t have the same level of skill I had and he couldn’t stand that I was more creative, and very well liked. The bad thing then for me was instead of getting mad, I’d melt and become so upset and far too paralyzed to fight back… It was just awful and I know exactly how you feel…. This man just loved belittling me and I was such a frightened wreck that he could get away with it. Only once I stood up to him – he used to close the door to his office to yell and belittle me. One time, I demanded it remain open (I wanted other people to hear what he was doing adn saying to me). He was so furious with me, he said “get out” (of his office). And a few days later, I got another job…..This was about four years ago and I am still reeling from it…it still bothers me. Bullying for the target is very unhealthy, needless to say.

      I hope that all is well for you now. It sounds as if it is.

      Thanks so much for sharing here!

  4. weezie10
    Apr 27 2010

    I have met many a bully in my work career with the majority being men. I guess they couldn’t take the fact that women were standing side by side doing some of the same work as they were, it was too humiliating for them. Hence the bullying started. If it was a woman doing it, she felt entitled to show force at all costs. It is never a good thing to stay in that environment because it eventually takes your positive energy and confidence to a low ebb, where productivity is reduced and the feelings of anger replace a person’s willingness to strive. I also felt like melting away, quivering like a leaf, palms sweating, and heart beating fast. I thought there were times when I would burst out crying. I knew then that something had to change and it was going to be me that had to do the changing as in LEAVE THE JOB. You can’t fight City Hall, they say, and I never had the urge to “If you can’t beat em “JOIN THEM” ”

    Thanks for the article. It brought back memories for which I am planning on stuffing them back where they will hopefully reside.

    • Andrea
      Apr 27 2010

      LOL..yeah, you need to keep those horrible memories stuffed away – too maddening think about. It’s very sad that people can be allowed to treat others like that in the workplace. Most other countries have laws against it; the US has been resisting, saying that it cannot legalize “civility” And, that’s true to some extent, but if it can be enforced for children in grade schools, then we should be able to enforce it in the workplace where it can turn into violence – where it has turned violent….the aggressor/bully turning violent.

      The more society talks about it, hopefully the more likely it will be that it can be inserted into Title VII, which is the Civil Rights act of 1964.

      I think what you said is precisely the environment that bullying and meanness creates – you got it to a T when you said: “It is never a good thing to stay in that environment because it eventually takes your positive energy and confidence to a low ebb, where productivity is reduced and the feelings of anger replace a person’s willingness to strive.” That is EXACTLY what happens! If more CEO’s and HR groups would realize that by allowing management to treat people with such disregard, it directly impacts the bottom line of the company – no one feels productive in that environment. There response often is: well, get over it, we’re paying you! Yes, I’d say, you’re paying, but you’re getting what you pay for – if there was basic civility in the ranks, the gains would be multiplied because happy people are productive people. It’s really so very simple. But, the managers who make you, as you mention, melt away, quiver in fear, are hurting themselves and the company more than they know. They think that by being demanding and loud and mean, they’ll get more out of the worker, but it has precisely the opposite effect.

      Thanks Weezie. I really appreciate your insight so much.

  5. weezie10
    May 9 2010

    Andrea; I was thinking. I wonder if you could start a blog for youth who are going under these terrible experiences. Perhaps we could all pitch in and be kind of like councellors to help them along the way. I mean isn’t there something we could do? I know this was about adult behaviour in the workplace and we could also do one on that too. I just feel that the young people are almost afraid to go to school. It’s becoming quite a problem and up here many parents have chosen to homeschool their kids. I don’t agree with that only because of the social skills aspect, but usually the kids go to a real school by the time they reach grade 9. I hope they don’t become bullied because of it either. Hey it’s a thought anyway.

  6. Andrea
    May 9 2010

    Hey Weezie, you know, this is a great idea…. I think if the blog focused on the horrors of what children face in schools as a primary purpose, there will be opportunity to discuss workplace bullying, too.

    I’ve always wanted to crusade against bullying …. here’s the perfect opportunity! In addition, at the university I work for, there are quite a number of incredible people who are experts and tirelessly work to eradicate grade school bullying… Perhaps they’d support it, too.

    Thank you, Weezie. I like this thought. Will you email me with additional thoughts/ideas at as they come to you? I’d need to come up with a name for the blog, create a template, etc. Your thoughts and ideas would be great!

    🙂 thank you again.

  7. Jewel Greene
    Sep 20 2010

    helpful, thanks. myself I’ve recently found this book on stopping bullying and reading through it right now. it’s really hands-on.

    • Andrea
      Oct 3 2010

      Hi Jewel,
      Sorry for my late reply, but I do thank you for sharing that reference! It’s excellent. All the best! Andrea


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