A Minute With...

Dorothy Espelage, expert on peer aggression and workplace bullying

11/11/2013  8:00 am

The recent decision by Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin to leave the team in response to alleged maltreatment by teammate Richie Incognito has sparked controversy about locker-room culture and bullying in professional sports.
Educational psychologist Dorothy Espelage is an expert on peer aggression, dating violence and school violence, and recently led a study that examined factors predictive of workplace bullying. Espelage discussed her work in an interview with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest. Espelage is the Edward William Gutgsell and Jane Marr Gutgsell Endowed Professor of child development in the department of educational psychology. The department is a unit in the College of Education at the University of Illinois.

One of the controversies surrounding the Martin-Incognito dispute involves definitions of bullying, with some people indicating that the term is being overused in general or at least is misused in this particular context. When is it appropriate to call behavior bullying?

Dorothy EspelageExperts generally define bullying as unwanted intentional aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power. And it can range from mild to severe. Although this type of aggression is most often associated with children or adolescents, it also affects adults, and is referred to as workplace bullying when it is connected with an adult’s place of employment.

And whether bullying is in the classroom or the workplace it may involve similar behaviors, such as humiliation, social exclusion, verbal abuse or spreading rumors, and can be perpetrated through digital media. It also can involve physical victimization.

In the case of a manager bullying a subordinate, the manager may try to undermine the employee’s performance by imposing impossible deadlines or workloads.

Based upon what’s been reported in the news about the Miami Dolphins’ players, calling the behavior ‘bullying” is inappropriate. If the reports are true, there appears to have been a pattern of harassment that involved racial discrimination and other possible illegal or criminal conduct, such as threatening a person’s life.

Some players claim that a certain level of aggression is just the norm among men in professional sports. Aside from sports, are there certain characteristics and workplace cultures that promote interpersonal aggression?

There’s been much less research on bullying in the workplace than on bullying among youth in schools, but it appears that workplace bullying develops from interactions among and between intrapersonal, interpersonal and environmental factors. Research has shown that organizations may display certain attitudes and cultures that enable, motivate and create precipitating structures and processes that support bullying.

Workplace environments that support bullying tend to fall at opposite ends of a continuum. At one end are organizations that emphasize strict conformity, power imbalances, and very formal environments, all of which have been related to higher rates of bullying. However, at the other end are organizations with informal work environments, overly tolerant managers and ambiguous power structures, which also serve as risk factors for bullying.

Some of the strongest risk factors are linked to conflict and ambiguity about employees’ roles, which tend to occur in organizations where there are coercive or permissive leadership styles. Organizational change and chaos can also precipitate bullying, especially when an individual is negatively affected by the change and experiences role conflict and job insecurity.

If people don’t clearly understand their job roles, responsibilities or what’s expected of them, there may be greater levels of interpersonal conflicts among co-workers, which can lead to bullying.

Research indicates that an employee’s status in the workplace is an important risk factor, because bullying victims are often targeted by individuals in superior positions who abuse their power. An underperforming employee might be attacked or harassed in a perceived effort to boost their performance. And bullying behaviors may be used as a means of gaining subordination of new employees.

Highly stressful or competitive environments are also conducive to bullying, because interpersonal conflicts escalate. Some research has shown that poor social climates, in which gossip and ridicule are daily events and contribute to divisions among employees, lay the groundwork for development of bullying. And certain working conditions, especially unpleasant physical environments such as excessively hot rooms, can be related to increased bullying.

Research on youth aggression has shown some gender division, such as boys being more likely to physically victimize peers and girls tending to wield relational aggression, such as social exclusion and rumor-spreading. Are there similar dynamics in workplace bullying?

Research has shown mixed results about gender differences in work-related bullying. Some studies have said males are more likely to be bullied than females, while other studies report the opposite. However, in terms of perpetration, studies seem to indicate that males are more likely than females to perpetrate workplace bullying.

Men who are victimized may be more likely to confront perpetrators than women, who may be more likely to seek help.

Some research has shown that status tends to interact with gender, such that male workers and supervisors were more likely to be bullied than their female peers. Yet females in middle and senior management positions were more likely to be bullied than their male counterparts. People who are very dissatisfied and discontented with their jobs, and people who utilize ineffective coping strategies such as ruminating or complaining may be more likely to bully co-workers than people who are happier with their work and have positive coping strategies.

What’s interesting is that it appears that the most talented and competent workers are at greater risk of experiencing victimization than people who are less talented and less competent. High-achieving employees may be victimized by envious co-workers who feel that the victims threaten their career goals.

Your research on youth aggression has shown that bullying involvement may be associated with some pretty serious health consequences that may even carry over into adulthood. Do adult victims of workplace bullying fare better?

Evidence suggests that experiencing bullying has similar effects on adults as on youth, with increased risks of depression, anxiety and psychosomatic problems that range from mild – such as headaches – to severe, such as respiratory problems and pain. Likewise, bullied adults and kids may experience problems with diminished self-esteem and self-confidence and become socially isolated.

Assertiveness seems to be a protective factor as is greater cohesiveness with co-workers. However, social anxiety and self-doubt may place adult victims at greater risk of health problems.

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