The Impacts of Bullying on Observers
Eye of the Beholder: The Impacts of Bullying on Observers

The all-too-clear effects of bullying upon targeted workers have been closely studied across many years. In a bid to reduce bullying-related injuries and impairments, employers have worked hard to prevent and detect bullies in the workplace. Yet how do those who observe bullying behaviour – yet escape it themselves – tend to fare? Recent findings are beginning to shed light upon the other, often-forgotten people involved in workplace bullying – those who have to observe such behaviour.

Missing from data, missing from view

In 2014, Cooper-Thomas and colleagues noted that observers of workplace bullying are indeed often left outside of analyses of bullying behaviours at work. Yet with one British study indicating that 46.5% of respondents see themselves as being observers of workplace bullying, it is certainly timely to address the impacts of bullying not only upon targets, but also the unfortunate witnesses of such behaviour.

Negative effects

It has now been established that observing bullying can raise a number of negative emotional states in the individual. A witness may feel concern for the victim, worry for themselves, and stressful empathic visions of being ‘in the other’s shoes’. Just like direct victims of bullying, observers tend to develop a negative perception of the overall work environment. Compared to personnel with no exposure to workplace bullying, victims, observers and observer/victims generally experience significantly low morale. And not surprisingly, workplaces with high rates of bullying exhibit high conflict, ambiguous role definitions, and unfair leader behaviour. It appears that if we add the numbers of observers to the numbers of victims of workplace bullying, the overall negative effects upon workplace morale and productivity are considerably multiplied.

Constructive management

In the same way as victims of bullying, observers of bullying can suffer psycho-social stress, burnout and an acutely negative attitude towards work. This can flow through to role engagement and productivity, as workers’ wellbeing becomes taxed by these negative observations. Interestingly, the phenomenon of bullying was found to be associated much more with laissez-faire management styles than constructive or assertive styles. That is, when managers are disorganised, hands-off and looking the other way, more bullying arises.

The ripple effect

As well as the negative effects that victims and observers reported, it became clear in the work of Cooper-Thomas et al that the organisation itself suffers as the experience of bullying rises. In this way, there is a discernible ‘ripple effect’ caused by bullying in the workplace. Flowing out from the individual impacts on targets and observers, bullying behaviour causes marked negative effects on reported staff turnover and satisfaction, as well as morale and productivity across the workplace.

Reduce the bullying experience – get constructive

So for employers, it appears that concentrating only upon those effects that bullying has upon single ‘targets’ can be somewhat myopic. Rippling out through targets, bullying observers and then to the wider organisation, the overall negative effects of this behaviour can be vastly underestimated. One of the strongest preventative measures for both bullying and the ripple effect was found to be constructive leadership techniques.

Where communication is clear, roles are well defined and reporting procedures are accessible, bullying itself tends to dwindle in prevalence. Constructive managers will no doubt need to maintain vigilance against the impacts of bullying. This will necessarily involve not only stopping a bully in their tracks, but also dealing assertively and professionally with the fall-out caused by any ripple effect.  An audit of current reporting procedures, anti-bullying training and risk factors will also go a long way to preventing unacceptable behaviours in the workplace.

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