By Alex Fradera
Workplace bullying can corrode organisations and wreck individual lives. Research has revealed more and more about effects on victims and the motives of the perpetrators. But bullying is often a performance that demands an audience: you can’t ostracise someone from an empty room, or gossip about them to the wind. So it’s worth looking at the third ingredient in the bullying mix: the bystander. New research in the Journal of Social Psychology takes on this task, looking at the factors that dispose a bystander against bullying victims, and what might encourage them to step in and help.
Researchers from the Netherlands-based Open University recruited 161 working adults and presented each with a hypothetical workplace vignette, in which the victim was interrupted, belittled, excluded and gossiped about by a bullying colleague. In one condition, the victim was proactive, daring the bully to criticise them to their face or demanding they cease their behaviour. In another, the victim avoided the situation, by skipping out when the bully entered a room, or by taking sick leave to avoid work entirely.
The participants were cast as bystanders to these contrasting situations, and Roelie Mulder’s team predicted that they would have a more negative view of the avoidant victims. Stigma research shows that people are less sympathetic to the suffering of others when they perceive they haven’t taken opportunities to improve their situation. Consistent with this, participants said they would feel more anger towards an avoidant victim, and considered them to hold much more responsibility for their predicament. Proactive victims were additionally seen as more self-reliant. So it might appear that proactivity is a good move if you want to get bystanders on-side and willing to help you out.
Sadly, that’s not the case. Participants were also asked to report how likely they would be to step in and help the victim, and they showed no greater willingness to help proactive ones. There’s a grim logic behind this: the more responsible a victim was seen to be for being bullied, the less participants wanted to help. But bystanders were also less likely to help victims they saw as self-reliant, presumably because they felt less of a pressing need to do so. You either don’t need help, or you don’t deserve it, a classic catch-22.
Proactivity appears admirable from the outside: in past work, most people said they would prefer to stand up to hypothetical bullies, and victims looking back on events often wish they had done so. But the reality is that when we find ourselves in these situations, it isn’t so easy – avoidance is the more common strategy – and what’s more, proactivity isn’t always the wisest choice. If you lose your cool, you could be at risk of formal consequences. And even if you play it well, a confronted bully might just double down on their behaviour. A proactive victim might be the one most in need of help, but bystanders don’t see it that way. So if you’re coming out fighting, bear in mind that you may also need to explicitly ask for help from those who seem sympathetic, but haven’t realised the need to throw their hat into the ring.