Redefining Bullying in the Remote Working Era

Redefining Bullying in the Remote Working Era

The signs of workplace bullying can remain hidden in the remote working era but its detrimental effects on mental health and productivity are no less harmful to the resilience of teams.

Workplace bullying is a concerning issue, with a surge in reported cases. Research by Fox & Partners reveals a 44% increase in tribunal claims for bullying between March 2021 and March 2022(Cholteeva, 2022). Toxic work environments and ineffective leadership exacerbate this problem, leading to detrimental effects on individuals' mental health and overall productivity. Addressing bullying early on is crucial to maintaining a psychologically safe workplace.

The Invisible Nature of Remote Bullying

The shift to remote, hybrid, and flexible working has introduced new challenges in identifying the signs of work bullying and addressing behaviours. These may include subtle forms of bullying such as cutting remarks in video calls or less visible behaviours such as singling someone out to make them look unprepared, reprimanding emails, or exclusion from important events and meetings.

A 2021 survey from The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 43% of 1,215 US remote workers reported they had experienced workplace bullying (York, 2022).

While remote work has brought respite from dealing with the everyday stress of in-person bullying and harassment, it can be harder to recognise and address bullying in a remote environment as the clues are often hidden and more subtle.

Raising Awareness and Creating a Shared Language

Openly talking about the impact of bullying in the remote workplace should be an urgent conversation for every leadership team. Understanding and educating individuals could enhance organisations’ ability to recognise and respond to bullying behaviour effectively.

The definition of bullying vs expectations people might have of a hardline management style is often blurred by common media representation. From TV chefs to famous entrepreneurs, we regularly witness the humiliation of people for the spectacle of TV. What some colleagues might observe as bullying, others might see as a “tough approach”, normalised by popular culture.

Bullying often happens over a prolonged period, occurring regularly, and may involve a power differential between two people, with emotional impact.

The Neuroscience Lens on Workplace Bullying

People with narcissistic traits or low emotional intelligence are more likely to exhibit bullying tendencies but that doesn't make any of us immune to the symptoms of working in a toxic work environment.

Perhaps more often than many of us realise, people who bully are in a position of low resilience (Kabadayi & Sari, 2018). They may find relief from stress and pressure by demonstrating more dominating and aggressive behaviours. Perhaps this is because behaviours like this can activate the reward centre through the mesolimbic pathway, providing temporary relief from stress.

Meanwhile, the person being bullied experiences elevated stress levels, which disrupts the functioning of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala, therefore potentially causing issues with memory (Bremner, 2006). Elevated stress levels mean increased cortisol levels that trigger the amygdala's response signaling adrenaline and fight or flight mode, impairing cognitive functioning.

With prolonged exposure, it becomes harder for an individual to recover. When we feel stressed, anxious, or frustrated, our bodies will not release the positive transmitters that we need for regulation, happy mood, self-confidence, and self-esteem.

When individuals experience social exclusion or rejection, their brains and bodies respond in a manner similar to physical injury. This overlap in neural mechanisms between social and physical pain helps explain the impact of social exclusion on behaviour, including reduced empathy and increased aggression.

This is why it is so important to create an environment of interpersonal belonging to mitigate the negative effects of social pain. Strengthening norms against social exclusion, ostracism, and bullying can help reduce their detrimental consequences (DeWall, 2009).

Understanding the Signs of Workplace Bullying

The Chief Psychology Officer podcast episode 54 ‘Why Good Managers Bully’ received feedback from a number of listeners who felt that if you behave like a bully, you cannot be a good manager.

Nevertheless, the research does challenge this position: someone may be a good manager overall, but moments of stress and pressure -- in many cases placed on a manager by the organisation -- have the potential to trigger and impact that individual’s ability to be a good manager at that time.

While this in no way excuses bullying behaviour, it does provide an explanation for why some individuals behave the way that they do.

Bias Awareness

We are all subject to biases. To understand whether we are at risk of bullying behaviour, we must all build our awareness of our potential biases.

Research investigating biased leader attributions relating to bullying behaviours found that leaders tend to blame the victims and less favoured employees for mistreatment, and therefore perceive victims of mistreatment as perpetrators. (Kluemper et al., 2019)

This occurs even when provided with clear evidence that contradicts this perception. Leaders were likely to excuse the behaviour of their favourites. Factors such as the quality of leader-follower relationships and employee job performance influence these attributions.

Leadership Development

Workplace mistreatment is a complex issue. Appropriate training and support can enable accurate judgments and awareness of the importance of unbiased assessment of employee behaviour (Kluemper et al., 2019).

Leaders need to help align employee expectations with organisational definitions and crucially, involve employees in developing prevention procedures through surveys, focus groups, and exit interviews.

To address bullying behaviours, employers should focus on creating positive work environments. Positive and open communication, sharing examples of bullying including remote scenarios, and discussing the impact of bullying can highlight the negative consequences. So much more can be done to ensure everyone on the team feels psychologically safe.

Working with Objective Feedback

Using a qualitative and quantitative 360° or 180° feedback tool can help to identify blind spots in managerial communication styles and provide people with actionable insight (Avolio et al., 2012). Few people who demonstrate behaviour that may be interpreted by others as bullying are doing so with malicious intent. With this kind of feedback, leaders can become accountable for their delivery and embark on training to improve the way they approach challenging situations.

It is important that organisations do not substitute good conversations associated with performance management with a 360° feedback process. However, the feedback can help to raise self-awareness providing objectivity to a potentially emotionally charged conversation when implementing development plans.

Ensuring all employees are aware of and understand definitions as well as establishing procedures for responding to bullying claims will go a long way to ensuring appropriate action is taken.

Leading with Psychological Safety

Leadership teams should receive training on providing constructive feedback, and measures such as coaching and structured supervision should be implemented to effect lasting change.

Leaders that work to ensure everyone feels comfortable speaking up without fear of reprisal honour the psychological contract between employers and employees. Psychologically safe organisations practice transparency, helping to address problems early by increasing instances of reporting. By embedding values like compassion and respect, all employees can strive to create a supportive environment free from the negative impacts of bullying and harassment.

If you would like to learn more about bullying in the workplace and the neuroscience, tune into episode 54 “Why Good Managers Bully” on The Chief Psychology Officer podcast with Dr Amanda Potter (thecpo.co.uk)

To find out more about Psychological Safety or Blended 360 assessments, visit Zircon's website (zircon-mc.co.uk)

References

Avolio, B. J., Sosik, J. J., & Berson, Y. (2012). Leadership models, methods, and applications: Progress and remaining blind spots. Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition, 12.

Bremner, J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 445-461.

Cholteeva, Y. (2022, July 11). Workplace bullying claims hit record high, Data Shows. CIPD. https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/article/1792697/workplace-bullying-claims-hit-record-high-data-shows

DeWall, N. (2009). The pain of exclusion: using insights from neuroscience to understand emotional and behavioral responses to social exclusion. Bullying, rejection and peer victimization: a social cognitive neuroscience perspective, 201-224.

Kabadayi, F., & Sari, S. V. (2018). What is the role of resilience in predicting cyber bullying perpetrators and their victims?. Journal of psychologists and counsellors in schools, 28(1), 102-117.

Kluemper, D. H., Taylor, S. G., Bowler, W. M., Bing, M. N., & Halbesleben, J. R. (2019). How leaders perceive employee deviance: Blaming victims while excusing favourites. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(7), 946.

York, J. (2022) How workplace bullying went remote, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220819-how-workplace-bullying-went-remote 

First Published: 15th April 2024

Last Updated: 15th April 2024

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