Apparently adults are bullies, too.
June 17th, 2010


Apparently adults are bullies, too. Anyone working in a large institution, whether post-secondary, prison, or government, knows that life among one’s peers isn’t always sweet and light. Mostly we have our good days, and working at a university is usually a privileged experience, but we also have our bad days. These, I would argue, are caused not so much by errors or missed appointment but by the demoralizing effects of a colleague’s bad behavior. But who knew that such behavior was so pervasive? In the USA, where faculty collective agreements are scarcer than decent health plans, there are movements towards formal mediators and arbitrators to intervene in bullying cases. This week at a conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a professor of human resources and a former vice president for equity advocated for more formal alternative dispute resolution procedures to resolve really difficult situations. There is mounting evidence that those who have been bullied or, to out it crudely, mobbed by their peers and university administrators, are quitting the profession, looking for jobs at other institutions, or suffering the debilitating effects of stress—reason enough to think more creatively about workplace incivility. That said, the presenters also admit that third party dispute mechanisms sometimes reinforce the problem, making a victim even more victimized by the end of the process.

Oh, man, what’s a university to do? It’s a challenge getting consensus on a new course listing let alone stopping bullying.

Evidence of bullying seems to point again and again to the extensive research of a University of Waterloo sociologist, Kenneth Westhues. Leave it to a Canadian to study behaviour for which we are generally not known.  A glance at Westhues’ web pages lures you deeper into his studies, well worth a trip for anyone interested in this natural phenomenon. I say natural because by all accounts the research underscores the complex of impulses that lead to bullying acts, a combination of learned, cultural behavior (assisted by institutional structures) and biology.

We have all seen real or documentary footage of mobbing in the wild. Crows do it, seals do it, chimps do it, and, let’s face it, we do it. Westhues has spent decades chronicling persuasive evidence of mobbing, examining its causes and identifying its characteristics. Interestingly, mobbing occurs “in workplaces where workers have high job security, where there are few objective measures of performance, and where there is frequent tension between loyalty to the institution and loyalty to some higher purpose.” Hello universities.

Although faculty do not actually swarm a victim around a water cooler, there are more subtle forms of it that the discerning naturalist can identify easily. The AAUP paper notes the pattern of “regulation bullying,” a work-by-the-book-or-die mentality; “legal bullying,” which involves some sort of controlling or disciplinary action; “pressure bullying,” which more or less speaks for itself; and “corporate bullying,” which usually involves a senior administrator making life hell for the victim in ways too obnoxious to describe. The reasons for these tactics? “Big egos, an individualistic ethic, and tolerance for behaviors not accepted elsewhere.”

Today, as I write this, other researchers at the AAUP conference are reporting that –guess what?– among academics, men are more likely to be bullies, both genders are about equally likely to be victims, and older faculty members are more likely to be bullies and younger ones to be victims. You actually don’t have to have a PhD in animal behavior to come up with those findings, but it does help to have a survey in your pocket. That’s how the researchers came up with their own evidence. To be honest, they also disclosed they had a low response to their survey, an almost amusing indication of our tendency to deny our awareness of or complicity in workplace bullying. Then again, perhaps the low response rate indicates that academics don’t like to fill out surveys. I don’t know of any research on that topic, but I bet it is out there somewhere.

Sadly, or, perhaps I should say, inevitably, graduate school helps prepare one for the reality of bullying. Since the competitive structures in which we work both push us to do our best and tease out our worst instincts, often at the same time, we sometimes acquire the habit of devaluing or discounting another person’s achievements. That attitude can grow into a form of psychological mobbing, to be sure, so that the victim is increasingly subjected to not being taken seriously at best, being aggressively maligned, undermined, and criticized at worst.

The province of Quebec adopted the Quebec Psychological Harassment Act, in 2004, and so it is illegal to bully a fellow worker there. Go and prove it, though. I know of some pretty mean-spirited situations in la belle province rivaling nasty case histories anywhere. Do laws like this really change behavior?
There are so many questions that arise from this topic that it’s no wonder three papers at the AUPP are devoted to it this week; most of us can cite examples, fresh and distant, at our own institutions.
I am not very keen on setting up alternate dispute resolution mechanisms. My view is that if things get to that point in any academic relationship, with things breaking down to a point of someone suffering, then something is wrong with the senior management of the unit. Isn’t that why god invented deans and vice presidents?

I know it’s a jungle in here but I’d rather not have to go beyond the wildlife director for help.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

One Response to “Apparently adults are bullies, too.”

  1. Great post, I’m waiting for another!

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