Workplace aggression/bullying at the cross-roads: introduction to the Special Issue


Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Publication date: 22 March 2013


Lee, R.T. and Brotheridge, C.M. (2013), "Workplace aggression/bullying at the cross-roads: introduction to the Special Issue", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 28 No. 3.

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Workplace aggression/bullying at the cross-roads: introduction to the Special Issue

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Managerial Psychology, Volume 28, Issue 3

This two-part Special Issue features ten papers that consider the process of workplace aggression and bullying. In Part 1, five papers employ various theoretical perspectives to make sense of a broad range of research on this topic. Salin and Hoel (2013) demonstrate the centrality of gender in the bullying experience through the theories of social dominance, gender role socialization, and social identity. Brees et al. (2013) explain why certain individuals may be bullying targeted from the perspective of attribution theory. Next, Treadway et al. (2013) draw on social information processing theory to examine how politically skilled bullies identify their targets’ vulnerabilities. Samnani (2013) uses learned helplessness theory to explain target responses to subtle forms of bullying and social influence theory to explain witness reactions to bullying. Finally, Bjørkelo (2013) views whistle-blowing through the theories of power and dramaturgical performance.

In Part 2, five papers empirically examine how workers respond to workplace aggression and bullying. To the extent that differences exist in how workers react to such harassment, both individual-level and contextual factors are considered. The dispositional traits include the Big Five dimensions (Gonzalez-Mule et al., 2013), communal orientation (Hepburn and Enns, 2013) and self-esteem (Nielsen et al., 2013). The contextual factors include constructive leadership, organizational support, and anti-bullying programs (Cooper-Thomas et al., 2013). Last, the relatively recent phenomenon of virtual bullying is examined (Ford, 2013).

Part 1: Theories of social dominance, gender role socialization, and social identity

Salin and Hoel (2013) draw on theories of social dominance, gender role socialization and social identity to show how one’s gender permeates the bullying experience. They consider the likelihood of becoming a target of bullying, the types of bullying in which one engages, the interpretation of negative behaviors as bullying and different coping responses to bullying. Social dominance theory (Sidanius and Pratto, 2001) posits that bullying is undertaken as a form of social control (cf. Cortina et al., 2002) by a dominant group as a way of suppressing or subordinating another group and, thus, ensuring its own continued access to resources. According to Salin and Hoel (2013), this is most likely to happen when women move up the management hierarchy or work in a male-dominated industry (Zapf et al., 2011) since it threatens the prevailing dominance hierarchy. Moreover, individuals with less social power may be more likely to interpret behaviors as bullying and as being more severe. They may be more sensitive to potential environmental threats and are more likely to avoid directly addressing such threats.

According to gender role socialization theory (Eagly, 1987), given the gender-based differences in norms of acceptable behavior in society, it is possible that men and women engage in varying forms of bullying. Accordingly, consistent with gender stereotypes, men are more likely to engage in open displays of aggression, and women are more likely to adopt indirect, interpersonal bullying behaviors and methods of coping with bullying. As well, women are more likely to self-identify as bullying targets than are men, who are expected to be tough and independent (Nixon, 2009) and more direct in their response to bullying (cf. Ólafsson and Jóhannsdóttir, 2004). Finally, workers of either gender perceived by others as not conforming to gender-based norms are more likely to be targeted (Lee, 2002).

Attribution theory

Some workers bully others who they feel are to blame for the negative situations, adverse treatment or misfortunes that they have experienced. As argued by Brees et al. (2013), “attribution theory (Weiner, 1985) predicts that individuals will differentially assess and respond to trigger events. The specific type of attribution made for a trigger event influences whether individuals will direct aggression toward the self or others”. Accordingly, should workers attribute negative trigger events to internal stable causes, they are more likely to direct aggression toward themselves (such as drug or alcohol use, depression, etc.). In contrast, should they attribute such events to external, controllable, intentional and stable causes, they are more likely to direct aggression toward individuals who may have caused the event.

According to Brees et al. (2013), employees are more likely to blame others for their misfortunes (i.e. assign external reasons for negative workplace events) when specific contextual and personal factors exist. More precisely, work climates that foster bullying are likely to:

  • communicate “aggressive cues” in their policies and practices (e.g. numerous rigid rules and procedures, authoritarian management practices; Bensimon, 1994);

  • be characterized by competition, opposition and open expression of anger (Aquino et al., 2004); and

  • have unpleasant working conditions such as heat, noise, and crowding (Baron, 1994).

The personal factors likely to be associated with external attributions are:

  • possessing a hostile attribution style particularly in combination with negative affectivity (Douglas and Martinko, 2001);

  • viewing others as being responsible for what happens to oneself (an external locus of control);

  • being pessimistic about one’s ability to be successful (i.e. having a low core-self evaluation; Judge et al., 1998);

  • being impulsive and reactive in difficult situations;

  • having positive attitudes towards revenge; and

  • having high levels of trait anger.

Social information processing theory

According to the social information processing perspective, individuals read the information provided by their social context and adapt their thoughts and behaviors accordingly (Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978). The task of processing social information and manipulating situations is likely to be easier for politically skilled workers (Ferris et al., 2005). Using social information processing theory, Treadway et al. (2013) posit and find that politically skilled bullies use their keen social awareness to help pinpoint others’ vulnerabilities and strategically select tactics that inflict the most damage on and fear in their targets. That is, they select specific bullying tactics with their targets and the context in mind. Moreover, they evaluate the power dynamics of the workplace and use bullying as a means of building coalitions or acquiring the resources which they then use to enhance their own job outcomes. At the same time, they project an image of competence to powerful others, so that their bullying behavior is either attributed to external causes or viewed as “strategic leadership behavior that is a temporary jolt to the target designed to assist their long-term success” (Treadway et al., 2013). In contrast, lesser skilled bullies are found to be less successful in understanding and manipulating the social context, and their performance suffers with increased bullying.

Theories of learned helplessness and social influence

Samnani (2013) draws on learned helplessness theory (Seligman, 1975) to explain why targets may not actively respond to subtle forms of bullying (e.g. given the cold shoulder). These tactics are often difficult to interpret and may be embedded in other negative acts directed at targets. In the absence of clear-cut cues on the potential drivers or causes of such behaviors, targets may erroneously blame environmental factors and consider these acts to be rather standard given their employment in a “rough and tough industry”. Targets, who believe that bullying stems from such situational factors, experience heightened helplessness and feel unable to influence outcomes (Hershcovis and Barling, 2010). Consequently, they are likely to adopt avoidant and passive coping responses, which increases their sense of futility. This often begins a downward spiral of helplessness in which targets’ initial failure to address bullying drives them to view subsequent bullying as uncontrollable and, thus, not something to which they can change. In not actively addressing acts of aggression and hostility, targets will experience symptoms of depression and become less able to develop the skills necessary to discourage/prevent future bullying.

Regarding witness reactions to observed bullying, Samnani (2013) employs social influence theory (Tedeschi, 1983) to posit that observers may be afraid of being punished if they do not support the behavior of influential others (perpetrators) and withhold support of targets of bullying. Witnesses learn what behaviors are acceptable by observing others in their work setting, and experience a great deal of pressure to conform to their work surroundings.

Theories of power and dramaturgical performance

Bjørkelo (2013) draws on power theory (Near and Jensen, 1983) to explain why an organization may look the other way when a whistle-blower is punished for having brought bullying behavior to light. She suggests that whistle-blowing may be viewed as an attempt to increase one’s own status and, potentially, wrestle power from the dominant coalition in the organization. As a result, it may triggers reprisals on the part of senior members of the organization who are benefiting from the existing distribution of power.

Based on Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical performance theory, Bjørkelo (2013) suggests that organizations are motivated to maintain a favorable public image and engage in an idealized front stage performance. Their desire to suppress or block the information-flow from the back-stage to the front-stage serves to hide the organization’s inner workings that reveals them in a negative light. Although workers can let down their masks while backstage, since team loyalty is expected of all organizational members, they are still required to maintain role performance, albeit for a different audience. A whistle-blower, by definition, informs the audience of the organization’s dark secrets (information that contradicts what is being officially presented; Goffman, 1959). By exposing some of this back-side of the organization, they may be viewed as non-conforming and disloyal and, consequently, may be vulnerable to being sanctioned by the organization.

Part 2: Gender differences as moderator

Gonzalez-Mule et al.’s (2013) research examines gender differences in dispositional predictors of counterproductive work behaviors directed individually (CWB-I) at part-time workers. The study found several interactions between gender and dispositional traits in predicting CWB-I. Specifically, the Big Five dimensions of agreeableness and pleasantness were negatively associated with CWB-I in males, but not in females. In contrast, emotional stability was negatively associated with CWB-I in females, but not in males. In addition to showing that these traits differentially predicted workplace harassment, the findings suggest the need for managers to be sensitive to gender differences in reasons for engaging in CWB-I.

Communal orientation and self-esteem as moderators

Hepburn and Enns’s (2013) research examines how the link between social undermining, a distinct form of workplace aggression, and wellbeing, is moderated by the trait of communal orientation in student nurses over a six-week period. Student nurses who reported social undermining early in the life of their study group also experienced more diminished wellbeing at the end of their group membership than their classmates, especially those with high levels of communal orientation. This trait is especially relevant in the helping professions, as workers with high levels have a strong desire to assist others based on needs rather than for the benefit of mutual exchange. This desire to help those in need appears to buffer the ill-effects of social undermining.

Nielsen et al.’s (2013) research examines whether self-esteem ameliorates the detrimental effects of workplace bullying on mental health among employees in the Norwegian offshore oil and gas industry. Based on Grau et al.’s (2001) study of self-efficacy, workers with lower levels of self-esteem were thought to be more susceptible to negative events, both physical (e.g. safety hazards) and social (e.g. bullying), than those with higher levels of self-esteem. The findings revealed that workplace bullying was a stronger predictor of mental health issues than perception of safety hazards. More critically, self-esteem had a buffering effect on the relationship between risk perception and mental health problems but not between bullying and mental health issues.

Leadership, organizational support and anti-bullying initiatives

Cooper-Thomas et al.’s (2013) research examines the effects of constructive leadership, perceived organizational support and anti-bullying initiatives on workplace bullying and its relationship with wellbeing, job performance and organizational commitment in healthcare managers and providers. Not surprisingly, self-identified targets were found to rate the initiatives to be less effective than non-targets. However, organizational support and anti-bullying initiatives ameliorated the impact of bullying on the outcome variables.

Virtual harassment

Ford’s (2013) research on virtual harassment represents a point of departure from the other studies that have examined face-to-face harassment. The popularity of computer-mediated communication (CMC) has led to increased sensitivity over the health effects of “cyber-aggression” and “cyber-deviancy” through emails and text-messaging within and outside the workplace (Weatherbee, 2010). Her study found that virtual harassment was negatively associated with psychological health but was partially mediated by the target’s fear of future harassment. Also, both the perpetrator’s anonymity and receiving harassing communications at work (versus outside of work) strengthened the association between virtual harassment and fear of future harassment.


This unique group of papers adds to our understanding of why bullying exists and some of the complex dynamics involved. The five empirical studies highlight how individual difference and contextual factors have direct and moderating effects on workplace bullying, which, in turn, is inversely linked to mental and physical wellbeing, job performance, organizational commitment and retention. For their part, the five papers that explain some of the current research through their distinct theoretical lenses offer valuable insights to policy-makers and managers on ways to address the increasingly prevalence of workplace bullying.

Raymond T. LeeDepartment of Business Administration, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada

Céleste M. BrotheridgeDépartement d’organisation et ressources humaines, ESG-UQAM, Montreal, Canada


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