Psychological Cycle of Workplace Bullying

The model of Employee Emotional Abuse (EEA) showed that there is also a cycle of stages for abusive relationship in the workplace. The model proposed a six-stage cycle that shows (a) understanding the dynamics of abuse, (b) realizing the indicators of abuse, (c) controlling or stopping the abuse, and (d) predicting the development of unchecked abuse.

Figure 1. Model of Employee Emotional Abuse (EEA) (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2003, Figure 1).

The stages are meant may vary depending on the situation, and are intended to be illustrative of the progressive and escalating nature of workplace emotional abuse.

Stage 1: Initial Incident (Cycle Generation)

The model proposed that when there is a conflict between superiors and subordinates, it is more likely to be resolved in favour of the superior (Spender, 1984). This can usually be seen during the initial incident, an event that triggers the cycle of abuse in motion. Examples of triggering events include getting a new boss, a conflict over work or clash of personalities. An employee may argue or disagree with his or her supervisor, fail to do a task within the time frame, call in sick or get caught gossiping about the supervisor behind his or her back. Eventually, the employee act or performs in a manner interpreted as unacceptable in the principal view of management.

This initial incident becomes emotional abuse when there is an aggressive communication from superiors toward the employee, and it continues. When the substance of the incident is not dealt with directly and the issues are not handled constructively, the emotions related to the conflict may linger and escalate (Wyatt & Hare, 1997). EEA moves from the initial incident (Stage 1) to Stage 2 when the supervisor repeatedly uses disciplinary procedures that hide the abuse when it is intended to improve performance.

Stage 2: Progressive Discipline

Emotional abusers can be particularly skilled at appearing to provide constructive feedback because the organization formally requires it. Managers can go to extremes to build a case against the target to suggest that the disciplinary action is done justifiably and reasonable. Abusive managers are inclined to systematically distort these communicative processes if they want to get rid of an employee. When the more powerful member creates the documenting language, they author the formal record of “what occurred.” This form of chronic criticism more likely to unnerves targets (Lockhart, 1997) and results in further poor performance that justifies the initial claims of incompetence (Wyatt & Hare, 1997).

Abuse can be reframed as progressive discipline often begins in a subtle manner with casual comments about work performance. The initial criticism would be a verbal one before more complaints about work are expressed without stating the desired changes (Tracy, K.,Van Dusen, & Robinson, 1987). These criticisms would then be followed by written documentation that becomes a part of the employee’s personnel record. This escalates into Stage 3 as targets begin to feel intimidated and fearful over the repeated criticism and misused progressive discipline process.

Stage 3: Turning Point

During this stage, the abuser’s communication becomes increasingly negative, personal, and bombastic. The repetitive criticism shifts the focus of disciplinary action from performance improvement to target for removal. When targets attempt to give an explanation, the abusers often reframe the situation and describe it very differently from the target’s version. Abusers would often brand the target as troublemakers or problem employees. When target can no longer tolerate the abuse and decide to report to the upper management, the cycle of abuse continue into Stage 4.

Stage 4: Organizational Ambivalence

Most research indicates that targets usually do not inform upper management (Lockhart, 1997; Beasley & Rayner, 1997). Research also found that when targets inform upper management about abuse, they are generally hesitant to get involved in the problems between supervisors and their subordinate staff (Harlos & Pinder, 1999; Namie & Namie, 2000). Targets learn that the organization is not going to do much about the problem and decide to stop pursuing the matter and stay silent. When upper management fails to intervene and prevent further abuse, the cycle progresses to Stage 5.

Stage 5: Isolation and Silencing

During this stage, the target finds him or herself with no options left for resistance of making sense of the abusive communications. Targets are also often silenced and separated from support as most co-workers do not speak up in the face of collegial abuse. Employees learn that it is not safe to express their view, as it is reconfirmed by upper management’s lack of response on the existing abuse case. Targets would report feeling isolated and alone in their situations with no help or understanding from inside or outside the system (Wyatt & Hare, 1997). Eventually, when the target can no longer tolerate the situation, they usually leave the organization if they have not left at earlier stage.

Stage 6: Expulsion and Cycle Regeneration

Expulsion of the target does not end the cycle of workplace abuse for organizations, abusers or other targets. The organization’s lack of response to allow and listen to alternative voices indicates to the employers and management that abuse is a supported norm of the organizational culture. As illustrated by figure 2, the cycle regenerates after a brief calm period.

Between the cycle of abuse from domestic violence and the model of EEA from workplace bullying, two major similarities comes across. The first is that both are cycles of repeated abusive behaviours which comes and goes against the target. This causes the target to be unsure and confused on what to do and how to proceed. The second is that both cycles usually result in the victims being isolated and feel helpless. Domestic violence’s victim often develop learned helplessness and battered women syndrome, while victim of workplace bullying often feel so isolated at work that they choose to leave.

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