Talking about Bullying: Stigma and Realities
The last three decades have seen many studies of workplace bullying, as governments confront the huge economic costs it exacts, as well as the human costs on targets. Yet, stigma surrounds the subject, and something of a cone of silence.
In one way, this makes sense: no one prefers to talk about difficult subjects. We’d all prefer workplace bullying “wasn’t a thing”, as the kids say. On the other hand, statistics internationally confirm 10-15% of workers at any time report being subject to it. This means that at least 10-15% of other workers and managers engage in what one definition calls “offensive behavior through vindictive, cruel, malicious, or humiliating attempts to undermine an individual or groups of employees”, and many more witness it playing out upon others.
People, even when they act badly, do so for the sake of what they think is right and appropriate. So, almost all of these people must think that what is reported as bullying isn’t really so bad. The argument of these people is that many targets who report their experiences are exaggerating, putting it on, or are perhaps “too soft”.
Doubtlessly, some numbers of reports are exaggerated. However, there are also significant psychological, social, and professional costs with making any report of workplace harassment, especially where one’s managers misconduct is implicated. Every case is individual and needs to be assessed on its merits. However, acknowledging these costs speak powerfully against there being an epidemic of over-reporting.
What Bullying Is
Of course, we need to be clear about what we think “bullying” is. And there will always be grey zones, and borderline cases. But bullying isn’t always the overt aggression of bosses towards employees, stripping down or humiliating employees publicly, let alone the kind of low-level violence Jordan Peterson describes as being visited upon a rail worker, “Lunch bucket”, in his bestseller, 12 Rules for Life.
Especially in white collar industries, where in fact as much or more bullying seems to be taking place (up to and including in hospitals and universities), bullying tends to be more indirect, discrete, and Machiavellian. To cite just some of the top 25 strategies reported by American workers in a national survey by the American Bullying Institute, bullying more typically involves:
- Making false accusations about the target to others, including managers, (a whopping 71% of those surveyed had seen or experienced bullies doing this in their workplaces, or to them).
- Using non-verbal intimidation, like smiling, staring, glaring, coughing, or scoffing whilst targets speak (68%).
- Dismissing an individual’s thoughts or feelings, by ignoring them or making disparaging remarks like “that’s silly”, “that’s crazy” (64%).
- Using the “silent treatment”, isolation, ostracism, social exclusion in the workplace, “death by silence” (64%).
- Making up special rules that the bullies (or their allies) don’t follow, but targets are expected to follow (61%).
- Disregarding targets’ work, even at indirect cost to the company or workplace, and withdrawing recognition for their achievements (58%).
- Spreading or failing to stop destructive rumours to ruin the target’s reputation and contribute to their ostracism or blacklisting as “troublesome”, “difficult”, etc. (56%).
- Stealing credit for targets’ work (47%).
- Using confidential information about a target’s nonwork life against that individual (45%).
- Retaliating after a complaint was filed (45%).
- Ensuring the target’s projects fail, a tactic sometimes called “blocking” (40%).
A lot of these tactics are what we might call “psychological” in nature. It’s not about throwing rocks, or even hurling abuse. Workplace bullying’s mostly a backroom business, and avails itself of forms of deception, projection, and dishonesty.
And there is a second thing worth noting about these top bullying tactics. This is that almost all of them necessarily involve more than one person. Bullying rarely gets carried out alone, which is why much scholarship on it now prefers instead to use Heinz Leymann’s term “mobbing” to get at the kind of patterned abuse and intimidation that goes on in workplaces globally.
Indeed, almost all of these workplace bullying “greatest hits” require the complacency or active acquiescence of managers. Managers enable bullying, more actively, by believing without checking the snitching false accusations which are the most common ways bullies operate to undermine a colleague, or by “blocking” the target’s work, so they can then be charged with failing. Or else, they more passively enable bullying by failing to stop the backstabbing, once it has started. Or they fail to make any effort to get to the bottom of what is actually happening on the shop floor by arranging to speak to both sides, consulting independent witnesses, and preserving basic standards of natural justice.
Much of what qualifies as workplace bullying on widely accepted understandings tends to be presented by perpetrators as the Machiavellian art of “managing a person out”. That person will be presented as “whiny”, “difficult”, “unable to get along with others”, “not a team player”, and a host of other terms which usually avoid raising their actual work performance, instead impugning their character in a way which is simultaneously much larger and much vaguer.
But there are always other, legal ways for managers to remove workers whose work is unsatisfactory. Allowing bullying or mobbing fosters a toxic culture of rumormongering, false accusations, in-group cliques, and unfair treatment of targeted individuals. It also facilitates people willing to do this kind of thing, who tend to repeat the pattern if it is not stopped and are almost always moved by a sense that what they are doing is absolutely justified, even if it has to be carried out behind closed doors.
OK: so, what’s Stoicism got to do with any of this?
Why Stoicism, for People Facing Workplace Bullying?
Of course, we have to underscore that if Stoicism was a philosophy of “suck it up, buttercup” fatalism, then it would have nothing to say to bullying targets. People throughout the ages have presented it this way. This is a worry which enlightenment philosophe Denis Diderot for example shares, despite his great love for Seneca, in his final book, which was on the Roman Stoic.
But Stoicism is the philosophy that says that virtue or strength of character is the only good. It is a philosophy which says that what matters for a person, the test of their mettle, is what they make of what befalls them, not what happens to them from the outside.
No one is perfect. Many people who bullies or their cliques target in workplaces may have inadvertently or even deliberately done things in the past, which others found objectionable. But there are procedures for addressing poor work, and disciplinary procedures available to correct poor conduct in the workplace. Bullying is a “black op” undertaken by those who feel entitled or protected enough. It bends moral and legal norms to send a message to someone the bullies feel deserves it.
As a result, in almost all cases, the targets are taken almost wholly by surprise by what befalls them—they experience what might be called “shock and awe”, if not terror. More than this, the forms of harassment and intimidation they begin to face, over time (and bullying always must unfold over time, one encounter is not bullying)—the rude comments, the jokes at their expense, the exclusion from information loops, the not finding out about social events, etc.—each of these things is there to tell them something. The “something” is that they are not worthy and welcome, a part of the team, but someone whom others need not give the time of day to, let alone ordinary forms of professional respect and due recognition.
Moreover, the taunts and provocations of bullies are forms of bait. They aim to provoke some kind of emotional response in targets, and don’t work if they don’t—whether of distress, which will satisfy people who enjoy bringing others down; or of anger and retaliation, which bullies can then point to as evidence that the target is unstable, insubordinate, difficult, even crazy, and so deserves to be further excluded.
What this all means is that how bullying targets respond to forms of bulling is a key decider in how the whole process plays out. Just as Stoicism says that what we do about what happens to us is decisive, not just the things that happen to us, so the bullying target is placed in a situation by their colleagues in which what they do in response to the “funny games” of the bullies becomes very important.
Targets often report feeling powerless. This is understandable, especially in cases where management tacitly or actively participates in the bullying and sidelining. They also feel like their professional and other boundaries, and their very sense of what is possible, have been violated. There is a great deal of research out there on standard forms of psychological and even physiological trauma suffered by bullying targets.
What Stoicism can first of all tell targets is that they always have agency—no matter what others do or say, and no matter how badly they can dirty a person’s reputation, and make their work life very practically and socially uncomfortable. They are targets of bullies, yes. But they don’t have to be victims.
They still have the power to think their own thoughts, believe their own beliefs, make their own choices, and act as they see best. And they still have the capacities to respond differently than their bullies hope, in ways which don’t take the bait.
Stoicism also, above all, can proffer bullying targets practical exercises to help foster these bully-blocking capacities: practices which assist them in the work of not giving way to stress, anxiety, fear, or the longing for it all just to stop, right now. Stoicism was a philosophy designed to assist people facing great adversities. And throughout its history Stoicism has assisted people who have had to deal with grief, loss, exile, the machinations of tyrants, and the crises of civil and international wars.
Today, it can also serve as the basis for people facing forms of workplace bullying.
The Seven gifts of Stoicism to Bullying Targets
In Book 11 of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius recommends to himself nine gifts from the muses, to assist him with dealing with insults. In this vein, let me now proffer seven gifts from the Stoics, to assist those dealing with workplace bullying.
I. Dealing with insults: one experience all bullying targets will share is that of being insulted, slandered and misrepresented, whether openly or behind their backs. Stoicism’s emphasis on keeping your head when others around you lose theirs saw them developing powerful philosophical strategies for dealing with these experiences, as William Irvine’s invaluable A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t in particular has explored. Stoicism’s practices for dealing with–and taking the “teeth” out from–insults and false accusations, key weapons in bullies’ arsenals, are too-little-known tools which bullying targets can draw upon when their colleagues continue to bait them, hoping to cause distress and anguish. Each of these exercises—Marcus’ nine gifts from the muses—turns upon distinguishing between what others have said about us, and how we respond to it. As he writes:
Say nothing more to yourself than what the first appearances report. Suppose that it has been reported to you that a certain person speaks badly of you. This has been reported; but that you have been injured, that has not been reported. (Meditations 8, 49)
To the extent they assist targets in not biting back, because they no longer feel the intended injuries being directed at them, these strategies disempower the bullies, as well as affording the target greater resilience in the face of slanders.
II. Preparing for difficult encounters and conversations: as long as targets choose (or feel compelled through material need) to stay in their workplaces, and the bullying is not stopped, they need to maintain a functional level of peace of mind, to be able to work productively in a hostile environment. Stoicism’s practices of premeditating adversities, to prepare for even the worst eventualities, is an invaluable practice here. We often cannot avoid meeting difficult people, and targets are often compelled to meetings with managers, in whose capacities and justice they have no faith. By visualizing the worst that can happen, and also recalling what powers we still have even if the worst unfolds, the Stoic practice of premeditating of adversities can enable targets to minimize their anxiety about these meetings, so they can perform as well as possible facing possibly very difficult conversations.
III. Reclaiming boundaries: bullying or mobbing has been described by Swedish sociologist Heinz Leymann in his classic work Workplace Mobbing as Psychological Terrorism: How Groups Eliminate Unwanted Members as a form of “psychological terrorism”. Being targeted by bullies is an experience in which the boundaries of the individual’s sense of self are challenged: their professional self and capacity to work, their social self and right to recognition, and their personal selves, in cases where their privacy is withdrawn and their private lives are discussed behind closed doors or mocked to their faces. Many testimonies are indeed harrying: “I felt unreal, surreal”; “It was soul destroying. I didn’t deserve this. I did nothing wrong”; “[i]t’s like Chinese water torture”, “a mini-holocaust”, “a gentle genocide”, targets interviewed by Australian bullying studies scholar Evelyn Field
Stoicism is a philosophy which stresses the importance of knowing what is in our control, and what is not in our control, and taking ownership of the difference. Starting from the dichotomy of control, it asks us to respond even to situations in which many things we have taken for granted are taken from us, by recognizing that we still have agency: our thoughts and choices remain ours, no matter what others can take from us. This powerful, difficult insight is echoed by such survivors of the very worst humans have visited upon each other as Victor Frankl to Edith Eger, both of whom endured Auschwitz and built new lives after the war. It can assist targets of workplace bullying too, as their present work role, professional reputation, and sense of self is challenged.
IV. Reclaiming agency: bullying and mobbing are so insidious and potentially damaging for targets insofar as they first of all involve actions intended to demean, belittle, disempower, or shame the targets, and secondly, attempts to silence any criticism or complaints against these actions, or depict these effects (the target’s responses) as the causes of the problem.
As a result of this “one-two punch” aspect of the phenomenon, as it can be called, the target experiences both the hurt of the first blows. Then there is the further insult that their hurt is not recognized or taken seriously by the people, managers, whom they could have reasonably supposed would protect their wellbeing, or basic fairness, in the workplace.
Workplace bullying targets hence typically feel humiliated and betrayed. They also feel robbed of a sense of agency, a powerless object. But, as we’ve stressed, Stoicism maintains that all human beings have the inalienable capacities to think and govern their own lives. This is non-negotiable. No matter who your bully or bullies are, Stoicism affirms that targets have the agency to think about and respond to what is coming at them. There is what happens to us, then there is what we do with it.
5. Dealing with our emotions: for whatever psychological or professional reasons impel bullies, they intend that the target of their bullying and sidelining should feel bad about themselves, their work, their life, their prospects, their very worth as a human being—indeed, that they deserve to feel this way, at least until they back down and leave the job. Targets regularly report feeling a whole cocktail of negative affects: from stress, anxiety, isolation, and fear, to shame, guilt, professional inadequacy, and uncertainty about their own vocational future.
Because of the one-two punch structure of bullying, if a target shows their rage, their confusion or even their despair, this show of emotion is often turned around against them by the bullies. “Gotcha! See, this person is not a good fit … difficult … unstable … whiny … Have we not been saying this all along?”
If the bullies have managers onside, the whole thing takes on the aspect of playing Monopoly with the banker. As painful and difficult as this can be, a key part of any strategy for surviving workplace bullying is hence going to be a forced confrontation with a target’s own negative emotions–in some cases, emotions they may not have felt before as an adult. There will also be the enforced need to hold back from expressing these emotions in a presently unsafe environment.
As readers of this site will know, the Stoics wrote consolations for people experiencing grief and loss, even exile: the last, a situation which is not altogether foreign to many bulling targets who face isolation and silencing in their workplaces. Seneca wrote a text on how to handle anger, another emotion targets feel when they begin to understand what is happening to them. Many of the insights these Stoic texts contain about how to reduce anger and turn melancholic grief into more affirmative forms of mourning, are uncannily relevant to bullying targets in workplaces today.
For the Stoics, emotions are based in beliefs about what is true, and what is appropriate to do about it. So, as with their advice on how to respond to insults, even if it is true others have intended to harm us, it may not be true that we have by that fact alone been harmed. More than this, we can still decide what is appropriate and best to do about it, thinking carefully about our situation, in consultation with friends, spouses, and counsellors before acting out in the heat of the moment, in an environment which may presently be unsafe.
VI. Managing symptoms of stress, anxiety, PTSD: from the earliest dedicated studies, results have again and again showed that experiencing workplace bullying is amongst the most stressful experiences people can have. It has damaging psychological effects, and these can cause a raft of flow-on, physiological illnesses, from stomach and heart complaints to high blood pressure and sleeplessness. In too many cases, mobbing can lead to the very worst outcome. This is that the target feels so helpless, confused, and violated that they take their own lives.
From a Stoic perspective, no one can fully control when the internal manifestations of fear, stress and trauma might affect us. But we can become more aware of them. And we can become better able to live with and reduce their negative effects, rather than them “living through us”, and dragging us down. Epictetus in the very opening section of his Handbook asks us to address our negative impressions as if they belonged to someone else, indeed, almost as if they were someone else:
Straightway, then, practice saying to every harsh appearance. You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be. (Enchiridion, 1)
For people suffering from repetitive automatic thoughts—going over past traumatic exchanges or ruminating about what may happen—this Stoic technique of separating their thoughts (in their heads, at 2 am, at home) from what those thoughts are about (events in the past, or possible encounters in the future, at work or in a social setting) can do a world of good. For, when we become aware of them, we can also practice addressing our own semi-automatic thoughts, as well as our impressions, as a “you” which is “in no manner what you appear to be”: that is, a real and present threat that we must address right now, when this is almost always impossible. In this way, sufferers of repetitive automatic thoughts can slowly regain inner distance over them, working their way back towards greater tranquility of mind.
VII. Planning for beyond: for the Stoics, a target is not what others say about them, let alone what a small clique of mobbers and their enablers allege. This remains true, even if a person’s bully or bullies manage to convince enough people to give you legitimate concerns that their professional reputation is unalterably damaged.
For the Stoics, we each are rational, social creatures capable of living well, even when others lose their heads around us. We are born into families and communities and are bound to them by natural ties which also give rise to obligations and responsibilities, meaning-conferring connections and shared concerns and experiences which make life worth living.
Indeed, in a side to Stoicism that is perhaps not stressed as much as others, the Stoics place great stress on “appropriate actions”—”appropriate” exactly to our different roles, relationships, and responsibilities in the world. Any one person is never reducible just to this present work role, no matter how hard they worked to get the job. They also have families. They will have friends and connections. They may have spouses, and children. They usually have siblings. They may be part of sports clubs, social or community groups or—these days—any number of virtual communities.
What all this means is that, no matter how much a job threatened by bullying might mean to a person, a Stoic approach suggests that there is more to them than this one role. So, no matter what the bullying threatens and can in fact in some cases actually take away, targets will always have other parts of their life that they can foster and cultivate, as they look beyond their current situation, and towards a life after the bullying has ended, in this workplace or another.
Stoicism, Hope, and Confidence
If anyone reading this is presently a target of workplace bullying, they should seek out support: feeling alone, and not reaching out to others, is not a sign of strength in this circumstance, but considerably enhances the chances that a person won’t cope as well as they might otherwise do. Speaking to a trusted friend will “ease and discharging the fullness and swellings of the heart”, as the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in his wonderful essay “Of Friendship”:
this communicating of a man’s self to his friend, works two contrary effects; for it redoubles joys, and cuts griefs in halves. For there is no man, that imparts his joys to his friend, but he joys the more; and no man that imparts his griefs to his friend, but he grieves the less.
Targets will almost always benefit from getting good counselling or psychological help.
But they can take strength from Stoicism, in the ways we have now described, and which I examine further in Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond: How to Keep Your Head When Others Around You Have Lost Theirs and Blame You. Above all, Stoicism’s stress on what we can do, and on cultivating the virtues we each have capacities for—those of justice, including to ourselves; courage, including in the face of bullies and fools; moderation, including in the face of some of the darkest fears that can beset a person; and wisdom, about how best to act in our own particular situations—seems to this author to make it a philosophy uniquely placed to speak to bullying targets, many of whom are facing the greatest challenge they will experience in their adult lives.
Stoicism cannot give targets “hope”, if by hope, we mean the expectant dependency on things they can’t control turning out wholly as they wish, like others’ behavior, or potential legal actions to seek justice or compensation for damages wrought. But it can give bullying targets something which is arguably even more precious than such hope in external things: that is, the inner strength which allows a person to face up to whatever challenges come their way with a confidence that they can get through this, and even grow from the experience to become a better version of themselves.
Matthew Sharpe teaches philosophy in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond and coauthor of Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions. His website is https://matthewsharpe.podia.com/, and his blog, on Stoicism, philosophy, and psychological subjects is Castalian Stream – Medium.