We Are All Potential Bullies

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

The slogan “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” implies you can do what you want, and it will remain secret, without consequences. A lot of bullying and harassment stays in Vegas.

Late in my career, the CEO of a hospital I worked in used the full power of the bureaucracy and policies available to her to bully and harass me. I though by then I was immune to that kind of behavior, but learned a harsh lesson, and ended up in a very dark place which negatively impacted on my family, and a left deep scar on all of us. There was no sympathy from my peers, no help from my family doctor, none from the unhelpful “experts” on bullying selling their services, nor from my professional organizations. To the Ministry of Health, it was a Vegas problem. I never felt so lonely and helpless in my life. Evidence shows around 30-40% of people in the workforce can relate to my story. That is a lot.

To most people, bullies have some sort of personality or mental health issue, and the bullied somehow deserve to be bullied and must pucker up.  Nothing can be further from the truth. Also, in most countries there is no legal protection from bullying, and many organizations, despite having bullying and harassment policies, pay lip service to it, as mine did. For example, someone I know recently attended a bullying and harassment seminar run by an outside consultant, which is mandatory in her workplace, and my take, on listening to her feedback, is it was a farce so her workplace could tick off as per policy they went through the motions.

The reason people think like this is because they start from a mechanistic perspective, hence bullying is a thing that can be identified and studied, you can make policies to stop it, and run mandatory seminars, whether they are useful or not. The reality and evidence are different, and suggests bullying and harassment emerges from social interaction and fulfills a social function, which is why we don’t question it much, or stand up against it. Let me explain.

As humans, like many animal species, we are social beings. Meeting collective goals requires different roles to which we attach a value, which, in turn, is attached to social status. Social status signifies how much others value us, which, in turn, boosts self-esteem. Status can be formal, following assigned authority, which confers social power that in turn is more likely to be used to intimidate, coerce, or towards violence by using access to social sources of advantage, or it can be informal. We unconsciously assign prestige to status, and because it is easy to withdraw, informal status is more likely to involve dialogue, negotiation, and compromise.

Social status creates a social rank and hierarchies, which, as Simon pointed out, are pervasive in nature, and foundational to how many complex systems evolve. Rank and hierarchy, in turn, gives you access to desired and desirable resources to benefit from, and can be used to fight your way up the ladder, and fight off those below you.

Social rank increases a sense of control, boosts self-esteem, increases social acceptance, and has reproductive benefits, and people signal rank through confidence, risk-taking, etc. There is a constant drive to improve rank through social networking and searching for popularity.

Bullying means multiple acts of aggression against a person or group, where the aggressor holds more social power. Bullying can be physical, verbal, or through different forms of social aggression.

Evidence shows small children instinctively assign social status and rank, which is taken forward to elementary school, where aggression is used to show superiority to jockey for social position. In other words, bullying is used as a mechanism for maintaining or increasing social rank. What shapes what happens next depends on social customs and structures.

Our educational system, with its many rules and regulations, leaves little room for personal control, which, in turn, structures bullying. In other words, our organizations create the social context for bullying. Socially, inequality, race, ethnicity, and being different is associated with bullying.

The power hierarchies that form alongside social rank are supported by aggression against the weak, and those with lower status. One may argue from an evolutionary perspective, dominance evolved as a mechanism for reducing aggression, and works through intimidation, or, when socially unacceptable, via social rank. Bullies are often popular with their teachers and peers, have high self-esteem, and their behavior is supported by their social networks. The fact we tolerate bullying, especially amongst adults, points to the role of bullying in establishing dominance hierarchies, and we instinctively know that.

Most research on bullying comes from the context of schools, but also points out its pervasive nature in adult institutions and organizations. It appears Taylorist bureaucracies with rigid hierarchies and chains of authority and command are particularly susceptible to the problem.

In short, intimidation and bullying are linked to social identity, self-esteem, hierarchy, status, rank, dominance, authority, and inequality. There is no evidence of a specific personality type associated with bullies or the bullied, and we all are capable of effortlessly moving between the roles of bully, being bullied, or complicit bystander, depending on the social context. Because it is so embedded in society, none of us are immune to the scourge.

The tragedy in healthcare is 90% of the causes of burnout is organizational, which we ignore as if it doesn’t exist, amongst these bullying. In a caring industry, we become bystanders and look the other way when our peers are bullied and hurt, which is astonishing.

To Hannah Arendt, violence has to do with the tools of coercion; you can use power to coerce, but you need tools to commit violence. Bourdieu pointed out social symbols can be such tools, and, when used, called it symbolic violence. Those include social symbols such as policies, protocols, knowledge, access to media, the legal system, etc. When entities such as registering authorities, the media and press, legal system, politicians, etc., allow itself to be used as tools of coercion, they become complicit in bullying and harassment. What I experienced, and many others in healthcare and other organizations do too, is bullying and harassment via symbolic violence.

As onlookers, we tolerate bullying and harassment because it is part of the fiber of our social world. We evolved to be born with a sense of social ranking, which, when interacting with others around us is reinforced through social and self-esteem. In response, natural and designed hierarchies are created, and part of the struggle for rank and hierarchical position involves bullying and harassment. Bullying socially signals dominance and social rank. We learn the ropes while socializing with our peers, which means by the time we reach adulthood and join the workforce, it has become quite sophisticated and often very subtle. As such, our institutions actively co-create and condone the problem.

Bullying and harassment has health, mental health, economic, and other consequences. Given the pervasiveness of bullying and harassment, including in healthcare, we need to think deeply about what’s going on. We can’t call on more young people to join the workforce and then destroy them for social and personal reasons. We can stop bullying at its source, but that takes a commitment and follow through from us all to see and do things differently.