Bullying as a systemic organisational phenomenon

BY Prof Frans Cilliers

Bullying in organisations is mostly seen from an individual psychology stance as an isolated episode. We may be inclined to empathise with the individual victim and to avoid the bully. Using a systems psychodynamic consultancy stance, acknowledging the role of collective and unconscious behaviour, we will be able to understand bullying as an individual, interpersonal and organisational phenomenon.

On the organisational level, bullying often occurs in the face of large scale performance anxiety, for example in times of change and transformation. This means that the collective anxiety erupts in the relationship between a significant and powerful person and another significant and less powerful person. Thus the destructive relationship between the bully and the victim becomes the place where the organisation’s performance issues are contained in a representative manner. It is as if the bully-victim dyad becomes the decoy of the larger system anxiety.

Bullies and victims have probably both been bullied in childhood. They tend to repeat the patterns of splitting the good and the bad in themselves and are then being seduced by the organisation to repeat their childhood behaviours on behalf of the organisation. The bully holds onto the good and projects the bad onto and into the victim in a sadist manner. Thus, the bully can live in the fantasy that the victim is the bad one. The victim identifies with the bad being projected by the bully and becomes what the bully needs him/her to be by masochistically accepting the bad and containing that on behalf of the bully and the organisation. Therefore, both roles need the other in order to sustain the projection of badness. It is argued that both bully and victim have valences (or a predisposition) for their specific behaviours and that the organisation will unconsciously search for and use their valances to act out the organisation’s emotional toxicity.

Thus, when bullying occurs in the organisation, the role of the organisational development consultant is to ask critical questions about the manifesting macro level splitting and projections as defence mechanisms against organisational anxiety. Next, critical questions need to be asked about why this specific bully is taking up the role as the sadist and this specific victim the role of masochist – and what that represents in the organisation at this time. This may help to understand the complex and dynamic interpersonal and macro organisational dynamics about emotional toxicity around change.