In most bullying situations, the target of bullying finds him or herself isolated and alone. Work colleagues, who may formerly have been friendly and supportive, melt away and the target is left feeling like a pariah and an outcast. There are many reasons why people at work have little or nothing to do with a colleague who's being bullied, especially where the bully has some authority. These reasons can be narrowed down to (1) ignorance (of bullying), (2) fear (of being bullied) and (3) complicity.
None of this information is a great deal of help to the bully target: It will not help you persuade someone to help you. However, it is useful to give targets an insight as to why friend X will not answer the phone or why Z never spoke up when they had the opportunity.
The first thing to understand is that while social cohesion, mutual support and co-operation between colleagues is an important contributor to effective teamwork, in workplaces with an influential bully or a bullying culture, normal social cohesion, mutual support and co-operation and effective teamwork ebb away until they are no longer present. Work is an institution, not a family or community. Workmates are not people you have chosen to be with and they may not be friends - they just happen to be there. Sticking up for each other at work is not a legal obligation and it's not what people think they are paid to do. People choose not to stick up for each other if there is nothing in it for them and/or it puts their status or job at risk. Even where there's a trade union, a bully target who is a union member might find the union is of limited or no help, sometimes because the union rep is also an employee, and the bully has authority over both. Another reason is that while unions are enthusiastic about negotiating pay and conditions for the masses, only the bravest union negotiator will put his or her pay negotiations at risk for the sake of an individual member who says he's being being bullied by a member of the management team with which the union is hoping to do a deal. A bullying cycle can last a long time, and as the target becomes more preoccupied with the bullying, colleagues who were initially sympathetic can develop compassion fatigue and detach themselves from the situation. Complicity with the bullying could be following a bully's instruction and having a detrimental effect on the target, or keeping quiet about the bully's actions (fraudulent act / assault / etc) for personal gain, rather than to avoid personal loss, or joining in with or copying the bullying on one's own initiative. Where several people bully as a group, it's known as "mobbing". Here are more examples of Ignorance, Fear and Complicity:
- Some people have never given any thought to the existence of bullying, manipulation, psychological violence etc, or to the experience of being bullied, and cannot recognise it even if it is going on in their presence every day;
- Some people will never have the emotional intelligence or behavioural maturity to understand bullying, let alone deal with it;
- Some instinctively blame the target for failing to stand up for him or herself, or for being too weak for the job they're in;
- Some people lack critical thinking skills and analytical abilities and thus cannot see through the facade or the bully's mask of deceit
- People like to follow the herd in normal life, and especially so the presence of a devious, manipulative, charming aggressor;
- In environments where the bullying is entrenched, it's regarded as "normal" behaviour;
- Unlike assault and harassment, bullying is subtle and comprises hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incidents which out of context and in isolation are trivial - thus bystanders can't see the full picture;
- People who regard bullying as "management" tend to regard civilised, assertive responses to bullying as "insubordination";
- Some workplaces undergo regular or near continuous re-organisation, creating a chaotic environment in which bullying and all manner of other failures are easily concealed;
- Bullies exert power and control by a combination of selectively withholding information and spreading disinformation, therefore everyone has a distorted picture, seeing only what the bully wants them to see;
- Bullying often goes on behind closed doors so no-one sees it or recognises it;
- Bullying may be carried out in front of people who are unable to recognise the tactics of bullying, especially the use of guilt and sarcasm;
- Bullies go to great lengths to undermine their targets and portray them as poor performers - work colleagues are encouraged to regard the target as a threat to the organisation
- Where the bully's public face includes mimicry of normal behaviour, self-assuredness and charm, lots of people believe what they see and cannot (or do not want to) imagine the bully's darker side: The Jekyll and Hyde nature, manipulation, compulsive lying, etc;
- Bullies masterfully manipulate people through their emotions (eg guilt, fear, anger), treating any vulnerability (eg the need for a regular income) as a weakness to be exploited. Thus, bullies manipulate peoples' perceptions of the target, encouraging negative opinions and distrust in the minds of work colleagues, management and personnel, by undermining the target's reputation and credibility (especially if they are absent from work) by inspiring doubt and suspicion, sharing false concerns etc, poisoning the atmosphere and actively poisoning people's minds against the target;
- the bully grooms bystanders, and the target, to believe the target deserves the treatment they are receiving
- In an environment where aggression is dominant, good people who might have helped may already be disempowered and disenfranchised;
- Some employers aim to operate with a workforce of clones who do not question, let alone contribute ideas as to how the business is run.
- When the target of bullying is off sick, staff learn (from the bully or influential supporters) that the target is off sick, sometimes letting it slip that the target has a "mental health problem" or is "mentally ill", and expressly forbidding contact with the target on the false ground that it will harm the target, or that the target has asked not to be contacted.
- If the bully comes close to being outwitted and exposed, he or she will feign victimhood and turn the focus on themselves, which is another example of manipulating people through their guilt to evoke sympathy.
- Most bystanders are hoodwinked by the bully's ruses for abdicating responsibility and evading accountability, eg "that's all in the past, let's focus on the future", "what's in the past is no longer relevant", "you need to make a fresh start", and "forgive and forget, you've got to move on", etc.
- There's already a climate of fear in which everybody is afraid to speak out or take action;
- The bully has gone round the department and implicitly or explicitly warned everybody off, often using threats of reorganisation (redundancy), restructuring (redundancy) or even disciplinary action against anyone who helps the target;
- During working hours, some people act as if their role in workplace politics is more important than their attachment to the rest of the human race. If you find yourself being bullied, you may find that many people who you treated as friends turn out to have (a) no loyalty to you and (b) no moral compass. Standing up for you requires the moral courage and integrity to choose standing up for another person at the risk of harming their employment prospects.
- Some bystanders know very well what is happening to the target and do not want to risk the same fate, and so they keep right out of the way, (foolishly) thinking that if they keep their heads down, their mouths shut and pretend nothing is happening then it won't happen to them;
- Some will be aware of Colleague A who stuck up for Colleague B, who was being bullied. They will know that Colleague A was suspended, disciplined, fired etc, and they will have a very clear picture of what to expect if they do the same.
- Some bystanders will give covert help to a target, providing information, passing on messages etc, doing as much as they can but at the same time, making an effort to ensure their true loyalty is not exposed to anyone else.
- Some bystanders excuse their inaction with expressions like "I didn't know what to do" or "it's just one of those things" to abdicate and deny their responsibility. (Bystanders who use such excuses likely make no effort to find out what to do next time.)
- Some bystanders who understand what is happening nevertheless perceive a personal benefit if they side with the bully, which might be to get into the bully's good books or to keep out of the bully's bad books. Either way it's the bystander actively looking after themselves irrespective of anyone else. In a climate of fear, with an adept manipulator :
- Some bystanders act as the bully's supporters, assistants, reinforcers, appeasers, deniers, apologists and minimisers, and they will lie, act dishonourably and dishonestly, withhold information and spread misinformation, write statements favouring the bully for use in disciplinary or grievance proceedings etc.
- Some bystanders to punish the target for alleged infractions, ie the bystanders become instruments of harassment - and they act as they are expected;
- The bully is often able to bewitch one especially emotionally needy bystander into being their easily controlled spokesperson / advocate / supporter / denier;
- The bully often forms an alliance with a colleague who has the same behaviour profile, thus increasing the levels of threat, fear and dysfunction;
- When there's conflict in the air, most people want to be on the winning side, or the side they think will survive;
- Some people gain gratification (a perverse feeling of satisfaction) from seeing others in distress and thus become complicit in the bullying;
- A few sad people think that bullying is funny.
It's easy to see parallels between the behaviour of people in dysfunctional workplaces and those living under military dictatorships. Those who refuse to follow orders on grounds of moral integrity, be it under Hitler, Haig, Stalin, the Roman Empire, Kim Jong Un, "Islamic State" etc, are arrested, detained, tortured and executed. The rapid expansion of the so called "Islamic State" has not been the result of a popular vote, but a campaign of disinformation, torture, rape, enslavement, executions and so on, killing anyone who gets in the way. In Western workplaces, people who get in the way of individual bullies and the corporations that sustain them can expect to be isolated, victimised, scapegoated, have undue constraints and excessive workloads imposed, be subjected to disciplinary proceedings on trumped-up charges as a prelude to losing their job, which might also mean their career, livelihood and health. This situation is allowed to continue because so few, if any, speak out. If more did, it would not be so easy to conceal. Willing witnesses who intervene in bullying situations can make a significant difference in workplaces and schools: Bullies are cowards and, the more they fear exposure, the more likely they are to desist. Of course they can be extremely vindictive and do everything in their power to destroy anyone who can see through their mask of deceit. In these situations, the solution is for more people to speak out.