Culture, Hierarchy, Workplace Bullying & Conflicts


Culture, Hierarchy, Workplace Bullying & Conflicts

Is there a bullying culture in medical schools? You betcha! That’s an easy question to answer and to explain. All educational and workplace environments that have a culture of extreme competition, with only a few places at the top of the hierarchy, are going to be uber-competitive and thus foster workplace aggression.

Bullying vs. Strategic Aggression

This type of aggressive behavior is what I call Strategic Aggression (or Competitive Aggression) because the aggression makes sense given the culture. If you are a medical student or a PhD candidate or a junior partner in a powerful law firm, you can bet that you are going to do what it takes to beat out your competition, or you are going to move on, or you are going to get pushed out. You do not have any options but to fight for your place at the top.

Many people are calling such strategic aggression “workplace bullying”, but I disagree. Classic bullying is really targeted attacks on an individual with the intent to cause harm. In my experience working with physicians and academics, the targeting happens but it isn’t personal! It’s strategic.

So, here is what I would hear from those engaged in strategic aggression: “Susie is in the way. She is going for the same grants. I like her but I have to compete with her. I’ll do what it takes and if attacking her reputation or wooing her graduate assistant from her is what it takes, so be it.”

In classic bullying I would hear: “Susie is a fool. I hate her. She gets in the way of my career. Sure I gossip about her, she is making my team fail. She has no backbone, she’s incompetent, etc.” The comments are qualitatively different. In classic bullying the motivation may be fear of competition, but the actions are intensely personal and vindictive. In strategic aggression situations you will find that the aggressor would be happy to be colleagues with the target, once the target is out of the way. I often see that the people would team up on grant applications and even share office space but ONLY after the competition factor is eliminated.


The Culture isn’t Personal

My guidance for people in these intensely hierarchical and competitive cultures is to be aware that this is what’s happening, to not take attacks personally, to get with the program and deal with the situation or to move on. We cannot change the culture of academia or medicine or law, or even the military. These cultures use the competition to weed out weaknesses. Regardless of whether there is any truth to the idea that the winner is better, knowing what you are getting into can make all the difference.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years.  My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.  You can contact me here.

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  • Tujay

    Yeah. I moved on after I had to use “strategic aggression” to eliminate someone I looked up to most in my sector after my boss hired him. He ended up losing out to me, my colleagues and I felt disgusted about it (we all liked him), and our once good relationships deteriorated quickly after that. We did impressively well in reaching our goals that year, considering how hard we had to work to “outdo each other.” Liking the results, my boss did it to me again the next year – hiring a woman I wanted to hire to help me. Then he set it up for me to compete with her – again. The second time – it was just starting to feel disgusting, I was tired, and I just wasn’t motivated anymore to “outdo” her because not only did I hate it the first time it happened but my other relationships had turned completely hostile as a result (we had turned on each other and were bullying each other). I felt like he was setting it up so I’d be fighting people I would have worked well with in other working conditions to “keep my job” instead of working hard for a promotion or a raise – which by that time I deserved. She took the bait and turned on me. It was sad and sick. I’m glad I’m out of that Machiavellian environment.

  • This is fascinating. I hadn’t thought of it from the POV of the person forced into using strategic aggression. You’ve opened up a new analysis for me to consider. That said, I am so so sorry you had to have this experience and so glad you escaped.


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