workplace bullying


The fight-or-flight response is a useful psychological apparatus when it comes to analysing workplace bullying, writes Peter Burnett.

For targets of bullying as well as for bystanders, there is something to learn from this popular trope. The fight or flight response describes our body's natural reaction to danger and so if a threat is felt, then fight or flight will always play a part.

In short, the fight-or-flight response describes a physiological reaction that occurs in people and in animals when faced with what they perceive as a harmful event.

The first scientists to discuss this theory described how animals reacted to these threats with sympathetic changes in the nervous system, which prepared them to either fight for their survival, or maybe flee for their survival.

In the psychology of stress, and when applied to humans, fight or flight applies to a reflex action. That is to say that when we are faced with a threat we may not be able predict how we will react.

In the case of a verbal or physical assault it is not always possible for us to suppress these responses, especially if the assault is a surprise. And one of the points that often comes up in discussions of workplace bullying, is that events can often be a surprise.

Some incidents are sudden and come with no warning. When I was verbally assaulted, threatened and intimidated (something that should NEVER happen at work, though my bully did it to several people) the shock was sufficient to illicit this response in me: Fight or Flight!

The fight-or-flight response is therefore a good framework within which targets can understand what has happened to them, just as it helps bystanders appreciate the responses a bully receives from their target.

We might all think we’ll know how we are going to react to something. But bystanders too have their own default response in this structure ― and that is known as the ‘freeze’ response.

Fight, Flight ... or Freeze?

Targets of bullying can sometimes find themselves freezing with faced with a threat, and that can be strange for others to witness.

When the target of a bully freezes, bystanders can interpret this as an acceptance on the part of the target, and thus a sign that what they are seeing is happening by common consent and is therefore not bullying.

Freezing may appear to be somewhat like fleeing. But when someone has a temper tantrum in the office for example, many of us will do just that ― and freeze. 

This does not mean that psychological damage is not being done and that a tantrum is not emotional abuse.

A tantrum in front of others is an emotional abuse, and freezing is simply a form of disengaging, but it is not like fight or flight because a target that is frozen does not deal with the threat or make any attempt to make it go away.

You can imagine the theoretical rabbit caught in the headlights if you want to picture someone freezing in the face of a threat. You have to accept that the rabbit is still going to get squashed, even though it sits numb and deadlocked in the sudden and blinding light.

Or think of the times at school when the whole class watched in a kind of fascinated fear as the teacher picked on one person.  Then try and remember how much of your attention this took, and the incredible silence that followed.

People can suffer this at work because of bystanders freezing. This lack of activity in the face of anger from certain unpredictable individuals is however a normal pack response. We know as bystanders that if someone really does need a dressing down, the way to do it is with a quiet and kind word. We also know as bystanders that if someone really does need a dressing down then there should be management documents, somewhere, which inform us how it should happen.

Targets are often advised that they must not shy away from such humiliation, but I’m not sure. It isn’t advisable for even the toughest of us to fight, especially if it’s going to be a losing battle. And again, a bully will be happy with either fight or flight.

Fight, and a target will very likely look bad in others’ eyes as their response will be made the issue. Flight likewise satisfies a bully, as generally that is what they want a target to do ― leave the place of work entirely.

A bully is not going to change ― they rarely do. Bystanders however can buck the evolutionary trend and be prepared to break through that frozen state into which the bully casts others.

These are some of the uses of the fight or flight response in the workplace. The important thing to take from this introduction is that we will never know how we are going to respond to a bully at work and that that bully might be looking to make a target's response an issue. That is what bullying behaviour amounts to, especially at its most destabilising.

You can read more in a freely available PDF sample from the book BULLY, INC. available from this site.


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