Bystanders are active members of the bully culture and they in no way want to be in the line of fire of the aggressor. Bystanders are still impacted by what is happening in the bully culture. Bystanders to workplace bullying take on different roles in order to cope with the workplace.
Bystanders can be peripherally involved with the aggression. Workers in these categories know what is happening in their workplace and they watch when bullying happens. These workers are partakers occasionally participating in the aggression. However, this is not done on a regular basis, and it is random showing the bully that they too victimize the vulnerable worker. The partakers bully as a fear response to the aggressor and it confirms for the bully, they know who has the power in the workplace. Witnesses may listen to the target and acknowledge that they know what is happening. But they will refuse to get involved or support the target publicly because it is too risky for them.
Witnesses or collaborators are active participants in the aggression. Collaborators frequently take the lead of the aggressor and bully the vulnerable worker. They typically do not initiate aggression against the target on their own but will follow the bully when they deem it beneficial for them. For example, a collaborator may verbally assault a target in a meeting where the aggressor is present but would not verbally assault the target under other circumstances. They try to stay out of the aggression as much as they can. Collaborators do not engage with the target but will with the aggressor because this advantages them. Collaborators try to make sure that the bully knows they are loyal and that they are willing to do the bully’s bidding when needed. They believe this keeps them from being a vulnerable worker.
Another category of bystanders are the observers who just sit on the sideline. These workers merely look on and watch the aggression that is happening in the workplace. The observers do not partake in the aggression but do nothing to stop the aggression. Observers take no action for either the target or the aggressor. They are complicit in the bully culture.
There are workers who do not engage in the aggression, stand up for the target, and will speak out against the aggressor. These workers intercede as needed. However, this is a rare category for a witness to be in because speaking up against the aggressor puts a mark on the witness. They put themselves at risk for being in the line of fire of the aggressor. They could be the next target of workplace bullying and no witness wants this to happen.
For the witness, each category is an attempt to manage the bully culture to the best of their ability. They want to maintain their own status in their workplace and not be victimized. No matter which category a witness falls in, the choices they make directly influence the aggressor, the target, and the overall functioning of the workplace. They are trying to manage and survive the bully culture just like the vulnerable worker.
Call to Action:
If you are in a bully culture and have witnessed workplace bullying, reflect on what role you play and the impact it has on you and your colleagues.
Check out bullyculture.com to review more resources on workplace bullying.