What comes to mind immediately upon hearing the word “bully”? Most people imagine two kids – one small, the other larger, maybe with a few friends in tow. The larger kid is probably menacing and maybe even physically assaulting the smaller kid, while the bully’s friends either urge the bully on or participate in the bullying. Bullying is something that kids do, people think; adults know better. Unfortunately, bullying does not end once kids become adults. It may cease to be perpetrated by the biggest person in the room, and it may not involve physical assaults, but it still happens. In the context of business communication, bullying often takes the form of verbal aggressiveness. Verbal aggressiveness or aggression, as a form of bullying, creates a hostile work environment and undermines organizational efficiency. Because of its individual-level and organizational-level effect, it is important to understand this phenomenon and take steps to address and prevent it.
Information: Verbal Aggression
When one hears “verbal aggression” one likely thinks of name-calling, slurs, and hate speech. These are all examples of verbal aggressiveness. Verbal aggression is regarded as a dysfunctional behavior, which has a tendency to create “unproductive conflict” (Hamilton, 2011, p. 267). It can take the form of “insulting and criticizing” coworkers, “perhaps out of jealousy or dislike” (Hamilton, 2011, p. 267). Regardless of why the individual engages in this dysfunction behavior, it has an impact on the individual which can in turn have an impact on the organization. This section will describe verbal aggression, the ways it affects individuals, and the ways it affects the organization.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, verbal aggression has several forms which can include name-calling, slurs, hate speech, insults, and criticism (often unfounded or exaggerated). Some researchers consider verbal aggression to be a destructive and therefore unethical form of communication, owing to the impact it can have (Valde & Henningsen, 2015). While criticism is a valid form of feedback and can be used to improve or enhance one’s performance when used constructively, the destructive communicator goes beyond what is necessary; they may even make things up or make personal attacks. Even microinteractions can be considered verbal aggression or bullying; these can take the form giggles and eye rolls as well as subtle threats and silence (Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012).
These escalations in aggressive behaviors are often directed at individuals. Regardless of who the bully is attacking, that person likely has some understandable reactions, whether the aggression is overt or at the microinteractive level. They may feel hurt, uncomfortable, or scared. They may express frustration and disappointment (Valde & Henningsen, 2015). Research suggests that the effects go deeper: verbal aggressive represents a violation of trust between individuals in an organization (Savolainen, Lopez-Fresno, & Ikonen, 2014). This in turn makes communication between the individual and the bully which in turn can make communication between team members or departments more difficult. This damages relationships (Valde & Henningsen, 2015). This can lead to individuals transferring out of a department or leaving the organization entirely to avoid the bully. Bullying victims may experience psychosomatic illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as suicidal ideation, leading to increasing medical expenses (Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012).
Clearly, the bully cannot attack the organization as an entity but the impact of the bully’s verbal aggression can impact the organization. When individuals cannot effectively communicate, they cannot work productively or effectively (Hamilton, 2015). The loss of trust between the individual and the bully lends itself to a loss of trust between the individual and the organization, and the less trust an individual has in the organization, the less motivated they are to work towards the organization’s goals (Savolainen, Lopez-Fresno, & Ikonen, 2014). Bullying in the organization can lead to a loss of reputation on the part of the organization, as the workplace becomes hostile (Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012). The lack of communication, as well as the potential for employee turnover, also means reduced productivity ((Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012). In short, no one wins when verbal aggression or bullying are allowed to go unchecked.
Verbal aggression hurts individuals in very real ways and also hurts the organization. It cannot be allowed to go unchecked, any more than the playground bully. There are several steps which can be taken to mitigate or prevent verbal aggression. Active education of employees about acceptable and unacceptable forms of communication is a good place to start (Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012). Organizational policies which outline such guidelines as well as the consequences (punishments) for such behaviors are also critical (Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012). It is important that the organization adheres to such policies; if they do not actively adopt them and encourage their adoption, as well as equitably enforcing them, such policies are ineffective (Fredericksen & McCorkle, 2013).
Bullying is not acceptable at any age. Bullying in the form of verbal aggression, which can include insults, slurs, and hate speech as well as giggling or eye rolling, not only affects the individual at which it is directed; it also hurts the organization. It is important to be aware of what constitutes verbal aggression and to make it clear in organizational policies that such behavior is unacceptable and will be punished; such policies must be enforced to be effective.
- Hamilton, C. (2011). Communicating for results: A guide for business and the professions (9th
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- Savolainen, T., Lopez-Fresno, P., & Ikonen, M. (2014). Trust-communication dyad in inter-
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- Valde, K. S., & Henningsen, M. L. M. (2015). Facework in responding to unethical
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