Bullies target popular colleagues

February 22, 2002

Victims of workplace bullies are often the most popular members of the office, according to research at Hull University.

Psychologist Penelope Smith-Lee Chong said her results had come as a surprise. It had been assumed that bullies targeted more isolated colleagues.

In fact, the study suggests that victims are often the people others most want to work alongside while the bullies themselves are isolated.

The research concentrated on the interaction between bullies and their victims within different teams in a large public-sector organisation. This approach was unusual, according to Ms Smith-Lee Chong. Most previous research into bullying focused on individuals rather than teams.

The question of whether personality causes people to bully or be bullied was a controversial one, she said, as it could lead to suggestions that victims were to blame. But the study did establish that bullies' targets were more likely to be introverted, anxious and less able to cope with criticism or conflict. They were also submissive and conscientious, which may explain why they were the preferred people to work with.

Perpetrators, on the other hand, were usually more competitive and assertive and often isolated from the main work group. They tended to be outspoken and yet traditional in their approach to work using tried-and-tested methods.

The study used questionnaires and asked participants to self and peer nominate, to identify bullies and victims more accurately.

Almost 300 people were questioned. The four most frequently mentioned effects of bullying were frustration, loss of work morale, lack of confidence and anxiety.

Ms Smith-Lee Chong said that the next question to address was whether bullies were less popular because of their bullying behaviour or whether they became bullies because they were isolated and increasingly frustrated.

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