2 min read

The deviant workers you don't see

New research has uncovered a concerning consequence of workplace bullying that could silently be damaging your business.

Frequent exposure to workplace bullying not only leads to health problems in the victims, but can also cause them to engage in deviant and counterproductive work behaviour themselves, an academic study has revealed.

The University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK and Uninettuno Telematic International University in Italy conducted the study, surveying 1,019 Italian workers.

The study found that some of the workers exposed to high levels of bullying had a lack of problem solving skills and experienced very frequent negative emotions like anger, fear and sadness. They also engaged in high avoidance coping strategies, such as drinking alcohol when they had a problem.

The most bullied workers also showed high work ‘moral disengagement’, which is a way individuals can justify their negative actions and absolve themselves of the responsibility for the consequences.

In addition to compromising workers’ development and health, the effects of bullying can also interfere with their achievement of both personal and professional goals.

The study separates workplace bullying into two categories; work related and personal related.

Work-related bullying pertains to the effect on one’s workload, such as removing responsibility or attacking a worker’s professional status, while personal-related bullying can be both direct and indirect.

An example of direct bullying is physical abuse, while exclusion or isolation is a form of indirect bullying.

The study identified five groups:

  1. Victims of work-related bullying who were also frequently exposed to personal-related bullying (4.4% of the sample). They experienced high health-related problems and engaged in a high level of misbehaviour.
  2. Victims of work-related bullying who were exposed to less frequent personal-related bullying (9.6% of the sample). They experienced lower health-related problems and engaged in less misbehaviour. While this group was generally able to use problem-solving strategies, they tended to be overwhelmed by negative emotions and were not able to control them. They were also inclined to morally disengage.
  3. Victims of limited work-related bullying who were not exposed to any personal-related bullying (22.3% of the sample). They did not experience health-related problems, but sometimes had engaged in counterproductive work behaviour.
  4. Workers who had not been bullied, but had high health-related problems (23.9% of the sample). They engaged in some misbehaviour.
  5. Workers who had not been bullied and had no health-related problems (39.9% of the sample). They did not have any behavioural problems.

The study was led by Dr Roberta Fida, a senior lecturer in work psychology at UEA’s Norwich Business School.

“Overall, our results show the need to consider not only exposure to and types of bullying but also their associated consequences,” she said.

“In particular, the findings highlight that victimisation is associated not only with health problems but also with a greater likelihood of not behaving in line with the expected social and organisational norms.

“The greater the intensity of bullying and the more the exposure to different types of bullying, the higher the likelihood of engaging in counterproductive workplace behaviour.

“Furthermore, the results show that health-related symptoms are not always associated with experiences of bullying. Indeed, while those experiencing limited work-related bullying did not report health problems, those who were not bullied but misbehaved did.”

The importance of emotions needs to be considered in management intervention policies the study’s authors say.

“Despite the evidence recognising the relevance of emotions when dealing with workplace aggression, this is rarely incorporated into guidelines,” Dr Fida said.

“In addition, it is essential to also promote behavioural regulation strategies to reduce moral disengagement, as well as negative compensating behaviour, such as drinking more alcohol and taking more risks. Its role in allowing ‘otherwise good’ people to freely engage in conduct they would generally consider wrong is further confirmed in this study.”

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