Workplace Bullying in Academia: Strategic Abrasive Behavior or Bullying?

Workplace Bullying in Academia: Strategic Abrasive Behavior or Bullying?

Lately I’ve been catching up on my TV viewing. In particular I’ve been watching BBC series entitled Inspector Lewis. The premise of this series is two “coppers” (actually homicide detectives) handle homicide cases in Oxford, England, and much of the murdering takes place at the University. On this show there are lots of graduate students and faculty members being abrasive and aggressive with one another and with these coppers. It’s interesting to watch how all this aggression unfolds from my POV as a conflict consultant. I see how Inspector Lewis & his Assistant handle the insults and intimidation from the students and professors and how immune they are to it.

Abrasive Behavior in Academia

Much of the abrasive and aggressive behavior that I see in academia is what I identify as Strategic Abrasive Behavior” that is aggression that stems from wanting to WIN. It doesn’t matter who is the target. It doesn’t matter the circumstances. Should a rising star cease to be a threat the aggression ends. It’s not really a personal attack but rather behavior that is spread around. It has economic consequences and psychological consequences thus rendering it “bullying” in the narrow sense of the word. But really, once the target stops threatening the status of the aggressor, or takes care of what they aggressor wants, all is well. The aggressor forgets about the target. The important point here is that strategic abrasive behavior ISN’T PERSONAL, rather it’s situational.

Other Points of View on Academia and Bullying

There is a new book on bullying in academia Bully in The Ivory Tower” with another point of view on the problem of abrasive behavior in academia. The author Leah P. Hollis, Ed.D., says “62 percent of people who work in higher education have experienced bullying versus 45 percent of the general population.”

Wow. Most of her targets are administrators and young faculty members. She highlights three reasons for the bullying:

  1. Big egos- people trained in their field, leaders of their field, with a strong sense of entitlement.

  2. Isolation- people who are not supervised or responsible to anyone tend to act out in ways they would not, if someone were watching or held them accountable.

  3. Power- people in high levels of authority using their power to intimidate others to get what they want.

These reasons make sense. Ego, isolation and power are certainly ingredients of bullying and abrasive behavior.

A Different Kind of Conflict Behavior

I do wonder, however, if this is really bullying behavior or is it strategic abrasive behavior—behavior that is not really personal, but situational. This kind of behavior can be amended with coaching and individual supervision from a skilled person who understands abrasive behavior. All too often all abrasive and aggressive behavior is called “bullying.” That’s why I created my system for understanding aggression in the workplace. Classic bullying is targeted bullying—picking a person to hurt, enjoying the process, loving the outcome (the person leaves) and causing substantial psychological and physical harm to that target. Strategic abrasive behavior and general abrasive behavior feels like bullying but it isn’t, because it’s situational not personal. Anyone in the admin role of dealing with an abrasive professor, provost or president would experience the unpleasantness we tend to call bullying.

Understanding the type of abrasive behavior you or your friends and family are experience can make a huge difference in your strategic response to the behavior.

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I’ve been 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.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.

  • Really?

    Strategic abusive behavior – sounds like a way to justify abusing someone. As long as it stepping on someone else gets you where you want to go – no problem. It’s not personal its business. It doesn’t matter the lives hurt and perhaps destroyed to help you strategically get where you want to go.

  • Well, if you look at the entire model, you will see that strategic abuse is ONE of 5 types of bullying/abrasive behavior. Lumping everything together weakens our actions and opportunities. So glad you’re reading my posts.