The complex dynamics in team bullying, part one

The first in this four-part series explores what team bullying is and what bullies hope to achieve

This is the first of a four-part series that comes out of my work with issues around one-to-one and team bullying over the past 25 years. During that time I have successfully coached many clients to recover from the trauma of being bullied by a team colleague. Only a minority of them raised a complaint about the bully’s campaign against them. However, none of the investigations found in their favour, adding greatly to their distress.

Over the next four weeks I want to explore the complex dynamics at play in team bullying, which can make it challenging for even an experienced and well-intentioned investigator to come to a just conclusion. In this first article I am going to set the scene by exploring the complicated dynamics that constitute team bullying.

Bullying in the workplace

Bullying thrives in an environment where bullies believe they will get away with it. Whenever a bully commences a campaign they do so with one eye to the consequences. If they know that bullying is not confronted effectively in their organisation they will persist. If they believe that their organisation operates a genuine zero-tolerance policy and takes effective action they will think twice. (Rayner and McIvor, 2008).

Bullying in teams is different from one-to-one bullying in that it affects the team dynamic as well as the target. It results in anguish for the target and creates strain between everyone in the team whether they are targets or not, as well as between team members and the bully.

What is team bullying?

A team bully targets colleagues who work in their own team. The bully could be the team manager or a member of the team. The bully could target colleagues more junior than themselves, their peers, or those with more seniority. Team bullies want to remove power from the people they target but also want to control as much of the team as possible.

Skilled team bullies develop and use methods that involve:

  • Personal attacks against their targets in one-to-one meetings and/or in a team setting
  • Attempts to undermine their target’s ability to carry out their work, to injure their reputation, and/or to weaken their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-belief
  • Removing personal power, credibility and organisational authority from their targets so they can retain those forms of control for themselves
  • Diverting team energy away from work towards handling the distress of the targets, the strain created between colleagues, and the team members’ need to protect themselves from ongoing and future attacks (Oade, 2017).

What team bullies want to achieve

Each team bully has their own preferred methods of bullying. These might include attacking the performance of a target (a tactic that can be devastating for someone for whom doing a good job is an important component of their self-belief), intimidating a target through the use of blatant aggression to undermine their confidence, or an attempt to weaken a target’s credibility and reputation by slandering them behind their back.

A team bully wants to achieve two aims simultaneously. Firstly, the bully wants to put their target on the back foot and keep them there so that they can, to some extent, remain in charge of the interaction between them. Secondly, the bully wants to alter the team dynamic away from its usual degree of openness and co-operation towards one in which team members:

  • Defer to them
  • Shy away from confronting their bullying behaviour
  • Fail to support the target at the time of the attack or afterwards
  • Don’t confront the changed dynamics in the team.

A team bully who successfully creates a culture in which bullying behaviour is regarded as ‘normal’ is one who can continue with their campaign without opposition. In next week’s article I will examine the impact of team bullying on the dynamics of a team, highlighting how relationships alter, the quality of work done by the team reduces, and both targeted and non-targeted team members feel the strain.

Aryanne Oade has worked as a chartered psychologist and coach for more than 25 years. She is also the author of eight books, including Bullying in Teams: How to Survive It and Thrive