Bullying Behavior and Wolf Packs – Social Identity Theory 

When I was in high school in the small seaside town on the south coast of England called Littlehampton, I met my high school bully.

Actually, I met him before I even got to school because he would hang around outside the school gates and I would run the terrifying gauntlet each and every day past him, hoping that he would pick on some other poor sap that day.

Usually I was the only sap that he went after.

I felt very alone, and very scared.

I thought back to that bully (his name was David) as I was reading some recent research on the issue of workplace bullying.

Recent Research on Bullying Behaviors

The researchers (Patricia A. Meglich and Andra Gumbus) explored the perceived severity and comparison of actual behaviours experienced when different perpetrators attack the target of the bullying within the workplace.

Their results showed that bullying by one’s supervisor is perceived to be more severe than bullying by a group of coworkers and that coworkers are more likely to bully when the supervisor bullies.

Bullies focus on the personal life more than on work life – it hurts all the more!

Interestingly as well, it was found that when working as a group, bullies tended to focus their attack on the target’s personal life rather than on his or her work life.

I immediately thought of a pack of wolves and how they operate, stalking and circling their target until there is little hope and certainly no escape.

During the research, Meglich and Gumbus’ researche discovered that many other researchers found comfort with the following definition of bullying:

Bullying at work means harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting some- one’s work tasks. It usually occurs repeatedly and regularly over a period of time. Bullying is an escalating process in which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts.

Lots of strong descriptors in that definition!

‘Socially excluding’ – ‘negatively affecting’ – ‘repeatedly and regularly’ – ‘escalating’ – ‘inferior position’ – ‘systematic negative social acts.’

There I was, right back at The Littlehampton High School again facing the shadow of David!

I suppose that I was lucky there wasn’t a pack of David’s’!!

Social Identity Theory

The researchers discussed the Social Identity Theory which has been proposed as one possible explanation for the group bullying phenomenon.

The Social Identity Theory explains how individuals develop a sense of “self” based in part on their membership in important groups such as the work unit.

Members of a work group integrate important group characteristics (or social identities) into their own identity, helping them make their existence meaningful.

In-group members (those that embody the group’s social identity) are favored and treated more positively than out-group members (those that do not embody the group’s social identity).

Targets of bullying may be selected due to being perceived by the group as out-group members who deviate from the stereotype image members hold of their group.

Status and power differences between individuals in relationship can lead to feelings of victimization by the lower status member.

Therefore, individuals are implicitly encouraged to conform to group norms and expectations and not behave in a way that will attract negative reactions from the rest of the group.

Sounds like a gang to me…. not a work-group!

The Social Identity Theory goes on to explain that members of a work group that seek to belong will behave according to the group’s norms and follow the group leadership and those in power.

The now-famous ‘obedience’ experiments which Stanley Milgram conducted in the 1960’s demonstrated the remarkable power those in authority can command over individuals over whom they have power. Despite holding personal beliefs that might conflict with those in authority, people often behave in ways that they would think abhorrent under different circumstances.

Witnessing one superior commit bullying behaviours toward a co-worker signals that the behavior is socially acceptable and perhaps even welcomed if it kept the worker in the supervisor’s good books.

Furthermore, receiving encouragement or even instruction by that superior to also engage in bullying would be difficult to resist. A worker on his or her own may not act in an abusive and bullying manner. However, that same individual may be swept up in the dysfunctional group norms and follow the lead of more influential members of the group, especially the leader.

In my book, this is now definitely the description of a gang.

Supervisors and Managers Provide Emotionally Contagious Environments

A supervisor’s influence has been described as emotionally contagious whereby the supervisor transmits his or her feelings to subordinates and can influence the subordinate’s behavior as a result.

Just so that we are all clear about this, it works for positive behavior as well as negative behavior.

Supervisors establish the culture and norms for a work group and individuals seeking to curry favour will more readily mimic the supervisor’s behavior.

The “trickle- down” model of abusive supervision results in work unit members following the lead of those higher in the organizational hierarchy.

Workplace bullying occurs not only in a downward direction but also laterally among coworkers.

Creating a respectful and productive work environment means that all members of the organization must operate in a professional, compassionate and caring manner towards each other, regardless of their status within the formal or informal hierarchy of the workplace.

Promoting a respectful and harmonious workplace is more than a “nice to have” in today’s organizations.

Turning a blind eye to a hostile environment is likely to lead to additional unethical behaviors by setting a tone of tolerance for inappropriate conduct. Organizational leaders must demonstrate and champion ethical and respectful behavior and push employees to act with dignity and decency towards each other in all circumstances.

If we are going to be successful at ridding our workplaces of wolves, this is the only way to do it!