Wednesday, April 2, 2008

School Bullying and Workplace Bullying: The Links

Unfortunately, the news sometimes confirms one’s darkest suspicions, often in bizarre and unexpected ways. I blogged yesterday about the increase in violence in our schools (and our society at large) as a factor contributing to the rise of school bullying. At the end of the day, when I did a final scan of the news, I noticed a horrifying story from Waycross, Georgia.

It seems that in Waycross yesterday, a group of third-graders—at least nine pupils—were suspended from school after it was discovered that they planned to assault a teacher. News reports say that these children had a knife, duct tape, a heavy paperweight, and handcuffs, and had hatched a plot to knock the teacher down with the paperweight and then tie her up and knife her.

In the same news scan, I also ran across an article from central Florida, where I spent last year and read many stories of violence perpetrated by the young, particularly against the homeless in that region. Yesterday’s story reports that several thirteen-year old students at Deland Middle School have pled not guilty to charges that they intended to shoot classmates and teachers in a Columbine-style massacre.

The news report indicates that the students aired their plans on a myspace website, and were placed in custody after the plans became known. This apparently happened in mid-March.

These disturbing stories underscore two points I made in my blog yesterday: violence is an endemic problem in our schools, as in society at large. And younger and younger children, who have grown up with access to e-communication, are now using email and websites to extend the spiral of school violence even futher. We have a problem—we have a problem. And we need to do something about it.

Other Internet research I did yesterday adds to my conviction that the problem is ours, and that the solution to the problem is in our hands—not just in the hands of youth being bullied in schools or those doing the bullying. After posting about a possible link between Alice Miller’s psychoanalytic analysis of the soul murder of youth and school bullying, I decided to see if there is literature cited on websites to support this link.

I found a wealth of material. Most fascinating of all is a series of articles by New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope on workplace bullying. On 11 March, 24 March, and 25 March, the Times published articles (with web forums) by Ms. Parker-Pope entitled “Meet the Work Bully,” “Have You Been Bullied at Work?” and “When the Bully Sits in the Next Cubicle” (;; and

Ms. Parker-Pope’s reports on workplace bullying build on information shared at the recent Seventh International Conference on Work, Stress and Health. The 24 March article is accompanied by a video in which (among others) Tom Witt of New York Healthy Workplace Advocates is featured. Witt defines workplace bullying as “repeated health-harming verbal abuse, psychological abuse, work interference, work sabotage.”

Reading Ms. Parker-Pope’s articles confirmed my intuition that we cannot address school bullying unless we begin to address the violence woven into our social fabric—the adult taken-for-granted violence that insinuates itself into the lives of third graders who have somehow learned to hatch an elaborate plot to knife a teacher. Brazilian theologian and pedagogical theorist Helder Camara writes about the spiral of violence: about how one act of violence inevitably results in another, so that, until someone somewhere stops the spiral, violence will always breed only more violence.

Camara and other Latin American theologians have also developed a sophisticated analysis of violence as “hard” and “soft” violence. Hard violence is easy to see: it results when someone takes a knife, a gun, or a fist, and assaults someone else.

Soft violence is more difficult to tease out, because it dwells throughout social systems as taken-for-granted domination and manipulation of others by authority figures who are deemed to be “over” the ones they assault through soft violence. Workplace bullying is a form of soft violence. Parker-Pope notes that this phenomenon runs throughout workplaces, and is often not noticed or addressed precisely because it is taken for granted.

There is also a price to be paid when one tries to stand up against workplace bullying. This soft form of violence is usually designed to be invisible to everyone except the object of the domination and manipulation, so that when the worker speaks out about what he/she has experienced, the whistle-blower is susceptible to disbelief, charges of being too sensitive, and accusations of being a professional troublemaker.

Most of us have experienced this kind of violence. It is endemic—and because it is endemic and taken for granted, it filters down from the lives of adults into the lives of children, where it often translates into the overt hard violence of school bullying. Parker-Pope cites statistics showing that more than a third of American workers report having been bullied in the workplace. Studies suggest that 40% of workplace bullies are women, and other women are often their target.

Reading Parker-Pope’s articles made me reflect on my own experiences of workplace bullying. I find some of these experiences still difficult to believe: that is, I find it hard to believe that adults deliberately seek to bully other adults, particularly in professional settings.

My experiences of workplace bullying have occurred exclusively in church-based educational institutions. I find it difficult to imagine that highly educated adults who ostensibly share a strong commitment to modeling adult behavior for students resort to childish tactics such as bullying, and that adults who work in faith-based institutions and profess a commitment to the ideals of church-based educational institutions would seek to use tactics of control, manipulation, domination, and assault to further their personal agendas.

My experiences of workplace bullying in both a Catholic and a United Methodist college have made me wonder, in fact, if bullying is actually worse in institutions dominated by a clerical culture—as both of these institutions (and many church-affiliated colleges) are. I have concluded, sadly, that not a few of the bullying techniques employed by leaders in these institutions are techniques they have learned from the leaders of their own churches, where “soft” violence is rampant in the dealings of church higher-ups with church underlings.

Some of my difficulty in believing that workplace bullying can actually occur in adult institutions (particularly ones led by educated people who profess faith) comes from my experience of being bullied in school as a youth—an experience about which I have written previously on this blog. The experience of being bullied can be instructive, when one survives it. It can alert the person who is bullied to the profile of bullies. It teaches the bullied young person to discern the signs of what makes bullies tick.

Early on in my experience of being bullied, I realized that bullies are stick-figure personalities. That is, they project images of themselves as omnipotent that do not match the reality of the bully. Bullies are actually pathetic, frightened, needing to bolster their self-esteem at the expense of others because they are afraid, at some deep level inside themselves, that they are not really the godlike powers they want others to believe them to be.

I learned early in my experience of being bullied to give no power—none at all!—to a person seeking to bully me. That person might assault me, either through the slurs and slanders of soft violence, or he might use hard violence to knock me to the gym floor. But what he lacks at a deep level—self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-confidence—I have the power to muster in myself.

I have the ability, I learned through experiences of school bullying, to know that whatever a bully does to me, he cannot reach my inmost self and make me believe what he wants me to believe about myself. In bullying me, he is exposing himself as the object of pity he wishes me to become.

My experience of school bullying taught me early on to remove myself from the power, from the emotional range and presence, of someone seeking to bully me. I learned that I had power on my side: the power to withdraw inside myself and see the world around me with a much clearer eye than that of my bully.

Because of these experiences, I have found it difficult to perceive when I was being bullied in the workplace, in faith-based educational institutions, as an adult. I had concluded that bullying is a playground tactic. I was not prepared to encounter it in the workplace—particularly not in church-sponsored colleges.

In the Catholic institution, though I sometimes ran a virtual gauntlet in the hallway of classroom buildings, where the old boys who saw themselves as the power brokers of the school would whisper ridiculous insults as I passed them, I did not perceive the full extent of the bullying—or its source—until a monk who is now abbot of the monastery that owns the college came to my house with the intent to bully me.

This was at a time in which there was an attempt to shut me down, to silence and discipline me, because I had made an issue out of the fact that my faculty mailbox was routinely being stuffed with threatening letters and other hate materials. When I went through the proper channels to request action regarding this matter, and encountered one roadblock after another, I simply decided to go public with my complaint. I did so because I knew the person responsible for the bullying—another faculty member, who had once mumbled to me in a hallway, ludicrously, that we were “agents” for two different ideologies contesting control of the Catholic church.

In writing a public letter, I wanted to make an end run around this childish attempt to silence me as a scholar and theologian, and to put such bullying beyond the pale, for the good of the college itself. I thought that, once brought into the light of day, the bullying tactics would appear so reprehensible and so juvenile that they would be ruled out of bounds in any educational community worth its salt.

My public letter was not well-received. After I sent it, the man who is now abbot came to my house and, sitting in a chair in my den, across the room from me, locked eyes with me, as he informed me that I was not to disturb the peace of the college by such letters in the future.

I was surprised at this behavior. I had never had a staring contest with another adult, let alone a priest, a monk, a fellow theologian. This seemed an . . . unusual . . . way to deal with an issue like stuffing of someone’s faculty mailbox with hate mail.

I was later to learn that these tactics were par for the course in the monastery that owned the college. If I told all the stories I have learned about this toxic behavior, which runs from the monastery through the college owned by this group of monks, I’d have to write a book. And people would then conclude that I had borrowed my material from Umberto Eco.

At the United Methodist college where I had similar experiences, once again, I did not recognize the phenomenon as bullying until a colleague who had experienced similar treatment from the same supervisor told me, “I learned long ago as an African-American woman to spot a bully. I know what’s going on with her [i.e., the supervisor]. I don’t let her have any power over me even when she tries to berate me and entrap me.”

Parker-Pope’s 24 March article contains a Workplace Aggression Research Questionnaire developed by researchers from the State University of New York and Wayne State University. Taking this quiz was eye-opening. It helped me frame the experience I had at the United Methodist university as classic bullying, and not merely aberrant behavior on the part of an out-of-control boss. In what follows, I’d like to share some of my own responses to the quiz questions, as a way of helping blog readers understand and name the phenomenon of workplace bullying—with the goal of addressing youth violence and school bullying.

The quiz asks if one has,

1. Been given little or no feedback about your performance?

with no evaluation at all. This is in spite of the clearly stated stipulations of the university’s accrediting body that faculty have to be given written evaluations with the right to respond to these evaluations. It is also in spite of the Social Principles of the United Methodist church, which state that workers are not to be harassed or to have their rights violated.

As I have also noted, I have in my possession a document in which my former supervisor communicated with members of her board of trustees at the time of my termination,

I never saw this evaluation, though I have been told it was shared with my subordinates. I certainly never had a chance to respond to it, though I protested the evaluation process itself, since I had been informed by my supervisor that the reason for this evaluator’s visit was not to evaluate me, and when I was evaluated by the evaluator, I noted in writing a number of outright untruths that had been told to me in the evaluation process.

  1. Had others delay action on matters that were important to you?

This has been one of the hardest aspects of the bullying I experienced at the United Methodist institution to recognize—that is, it is difficult to recognize that a supervisor who professes to be concerned about the institution she leads would deliberately delay action on assignments given to me to complete on behalf of that university.

And yet this did happen to me repeatedly, so that I now have no option except to conclude that the pattern was deliberate. My last assignment before I was demoted was to write a grant proposal,

And, though there was strong pressure from the university’s accrediting body to revise the faculty handbook, and though I was charged with leading the revision process,

3. Been yelled at or shouted at in a hostile manner?

This was one of the most surprising aspects of the bullying I experienced at this United Methodist university. As a previous blog entry reports, on an occasion when I was asked my views about an action that the supervisor was taking in a steering committee meeting, when I stated that I had misgivings about that action,

And as I have also reported, in a subsequent meeting that she convened between me and my subordinate, at which she instructed the subordinate to inform me that I was being talked about by the university community, she called in, asked to be placed on speakerphone, and proceeded to

I still find it difficult to imagine that an adult could behave this way—

  1. Had others consistently fail to return your telephone calls or respond to your memos or e-mail?

One of the interesting bullying techniques I experienced from this supervisor was a black-out of communication,

  1. Had someone interfere with your work activities?

This is also one of the most surprising aspects of the workplace bullying I experienced at the United Methodist institution. When an employee interviewed on the video clip accompanying Parker-Pope’s 24 March article notes that, though she was producer of a t.v. show, she had been denied a phone, bells went off for me. I still have difficulty imagining that any adult supervisor—especially in a church-based institution—would deliberately craft such malicious techniques to set an employee up for failure. And yet this must be a more common technique of workplace bullying than I realize.

As I reported in a previous posting, at the United Methodist institution,

At the same time, I was charged with leading the university in a campus-wide civic engagement project.

  1. Been lied to?

See #1, above. As this section indicates, an outside consultant was brought in to “evaluate” my work.

The consultant did not know me or my work. He spent only an hour or so with me. He made personal statements about my character and work that he could not possibly back up.

also contains a whopper of a lie regarding my work, which I have not shared publicly in any context. I am saving it to produce as evidence of defamation, in case legal action ever ensues. It is an untruth that is easy to counter with written evidence, so that I wonder why

  1. Been accused of deliberately making an error?

Again, this is a kind of bullying that absolutely baffles me, but I now know it happens, since I was accused of having sought to sabotage

I was assigned to write some fifteen documents for that visit, and expected to document each of these carefully. Shortly before the visit occurred, I found that the documents I had written, with their appended exhibits, had been taken apart,

  1. Been subjected to temper tantrums when disagreeing with someone?

See # 3 above.

  1. Had attempts made to turn other employees against you?

A credible source has told me that after my termination, those who had reported to me were instructed

  1. Had someone else take credit for your work or ideas?

See # 2 above. When the $15,000 grant request I wrote as my last assignment before I was demoted (I say “assignment,” but the proposal to write the grant request came from me) came through following my termination, one of the two faculty members given the job of “editing” the final draft took credit

  1. Been reprimanded or “put down” in front of others?

See # 3 above. It was a persistent pattern with this supervisor to bring someone into
meetings in which she sought

The obverse of the use of witnesses to assist in her humiliation of me was the supervisor’s attempt to

What to make of such workplace bullying? First, I imagine that my description of what I went through in these two workplaces is not far removed from experiences others have had in the workplace. By sharing these experiences, we allow others to begin to recognize these patterns, and to challenge them. And we must challenge them, if we wish to address school bullying, since the bullying of the young is learned behavior that apes patterns youth learn from adults.

Parker-Pope notes that the ultimate game plan of much workplace bullying is to get the bullied worker to resign. The skilled workplace bully develops tactics that are designed to be difficult to complain about or to address legally, so that the bullied employee too frequently simply walks away as damaged goods, rather than fighting for his or her rights. Parker-Pope cites Gary Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group based in Bellingham, Washington, who notes, “If the bully is a supervisor, victims may be stripped of critical duties, then accused of not doing their job” as a justification for running them away from the workplace.

Bullying in the workplace can become so intense that it causes the bullied worker to become suicidal. Parker-Pope indicates that researchers at the University of Manitoba recently reported that the emotional toll of workplace bullying is more severe than that of sexual harassment. She also notes that bullying by supervisors is often condoned by governing boards, since, in today’s corporate culture, bullying may be seen as a desirable manifestation of a tough management style.

I know of one case in which my previous supervisor

Parker-Pope’s articles do hold out hope that the tide may be turning regarding workplace bullying. She notes that a best-selling book by Robert I. Sutton, a professor of management and co-director of the Center for Work, Technology, and Organization at Stanford University, demonstrates that an institutional culture in which workplace bullying is allowed to go unchallenged undermines the effectiveness of the institution. Workplace bullying demoralizes workers, leading to absenteeism and high levels of turnover.

Why slog through all of this literature on workplace bullying? I think those of us committed to addressing the issue of school bullying have to do so, if we expect to make inroads in the culture of bullying among youth. That culture begins with us. There is a genetic correlation between taken-for-granted bullying in the adult world and bullying among the young.

In reading the blog postings accompanying Parker-Pope’s articles, I was heartened to read that at least one respondent also recognizes the link between Alice Miller’s work about the murder of the souls of youth, and bullying in the workplace. Once again: the culture of “acceptable” violence that too readily justifies school bullying begins with us. Adult acceptance of bullying leads to youth bullying. Churches, and educational institutions sponsored by churches, cannot address the phenomenon of school bullying (and they must do so, if they want to be credible witnesses to the values they proclaim) without recognizing that we are the bullies. Bullying is entrenched in the way churches do business, and it runs through church-sponsored educational institutions—which should be leading the charge against school bullying.

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