Workplace Conflict and Workplace Bullying: One Is Necessary, The Other Is Toxic

Bullying and conflict, these are two hot topics that may cause stress and many people would rather both never existed. I know. I’ve experienced both.  Back in 1985-1986, I was bullied at school, then as an adult I witnessed bullying within the workplace.  Actually, I have witnessed it in several organizations.  For me, my bullies were never physical (although one of my bullies did threaten “to kill me” but she fairly quickly apologized of her own accord), but it was daily psychological and social abuse, which the teacher explicitly condoned as “humor.”  While some things have changed since my childhood (like the acknowledgement of the toxic conditions bullying creates for targets and witnesses), we may have a new issue arising in organizations, where healthy conflict may be inaccurately labelled as bullying and healthy conflict may be actively dissuaded.   (To be clear, I have also witnessed bullying be labelled and written off as “personal conflict,” so this is not a simple matter.)

I have conducted (and presented) research on conflict, and I conduct research on workplace cyber-aggression (which includes bullying).  So, I’d like to take this moment to explain the differences between the two and why it is so important to promote workplace conflict (of a particular type), mitigate a particular form of conflict, and prevent workplace bullying. (*Please do not use this blog as legal advice.  If you are facing bullying in an organization, please speak to a lawyer and a qualified counselor to get the assistance you need.  If you are a leader in an organization, there are several resources listed below, but also to get guidance from legal and counselors would not go awry.)

Let’s start with workplace conflict.

There are basically two types of conflict: task-based conflict and socio-emotional conflict.  Task-based conflict is about ideas, behaviors, tasks, and things.  It is not about the person; rather, task based conflict should be quite impersonal.   One way I look at task based conflict is that it is an opportunity for two parties to come together to debate and creatively figure out a solution together on how to define and solve the situation.  Sometimes it might require the sharing of expertise or knowledge or the sharing of opinions.  Sometimes it might require one person adjusting their behavior, but it is about something not someone. 

Relationships, teams, organizations all need this type of conflict to occur.  One way I describe it to my students is to think of it as a good healthy and respectful debate.  The idea or thing is being tested and examined, counter-productive behavior is being addressed.

Without this type of conflict groupthink may occur.  Groupthink is where the answer is obviously wrong but no one says anything to correct it.  In other words, the Emperor’s new clothes truly do not exist and the Emperor is actually parading around naked.  (See Hans Christian Anderson’s famous fable to get the full effect.)  With the right amount of debate and task-based conflict or respectful dialogue about behaviors, relationships become stronger, teams perform better, and organizations’ performance improves.  People learn, ideas are improved, mistakes are avoided and the Emperor doesn’t parade around the street naked.  Everyone can win with task-based conflict.

However, not all types of conflict derive this type of benefit.  Socio-emotional conflict is where the conflict becomes personal.  It is characterized with ad hominem attacks, such as, “That person is an idiot!” “That person is a jerk.” “You are so lazy!” “You need to shut-up because we can’t stand listening to you anymore!”  At this point, the conflict is clearly personal and about a person, not the person’s behavior or idea.  This type of conflict becomes extremely stressful for individuals (in the relationship, team, organization), and it may quickly lead to defensiveness and “taking sides.”

One thing I point out to students is that the moment you hear, “We… They…” then you have a problem starting in the organization as that usually slips into the socio-emotional conflict about “Them” and the “Sides” become clearly drawn.  In this case, mediation and the listening to both sides to come to a solution become important to resolve the underlying cause(s) of the conflict.

Furthermore, what I have witnessed over the years is that conflict may start with good intentions (as task-based conflict), but because one party has invested so much of themselves into the idea/thing that they see it as a personal affront and become defensive instead of open to discussion.  At this point, conflict may easily escalate into socio-emotional conflict as parties feel threatened, defensive, or frustrated.

Even though socio-emotional conflict is stressful and can become toxic for organizations due to the stress, it is not the same thing as workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying is defined as:

Workplace bullying is a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others in the workplace that causes either physical or emotional harm (Rayner & Keashley, 2005).

It is usually associated with a person who has authority over their target (approximately 80% of workplace bullies are in a supervisory role to their target(s); cited from Holmes, 2010).  It is estimated that 30-60% of all employees will experience workplace bullying at some point in their career.  Bullies intentionally and persistently seek to harm their targets.  They use a variety of means like: social isolation and ostracism, repeated abuse and degradation, systematically undermining their target’s ability to be successful (e.g., deny access to resources), over-monitoring the target to find mistakes and evidence for persecution, and even withholding required knowledge/information from the target.

Bullying is not about providing critical feedback on performance, particularly if it is deemed helpful by the recipient.  Bullying is not the same as avoiding conflict as intentional and persistent ostracism of the target is not the same as temporarily avoiding the topic of conflict or the individual with whom one is experiencing the conflict.  Bullying is not the same as a one-off debate or heated discussion about an issue; it is persistent and targeted efforts to inflict harm to the target.  Workplace bullying is associated with very serious outcomes for the targets, including posttraumatic stress disorder, and in some cases, suicide.  (This phenomenon actually has its own name, bullycide, as victims of bullying are 7-9% more likely to commit suicide than those not bullied.)

So in closing, it is critical for organizations to encourage and welcome task-based conflict and to put ideas to the test.  It is also critical for organizations to prevent actual workplace bullying (in some jurisdictions organizations are legally required to have policies and procedures that clearly articulate a zero-tolerance of bullying and have clear procedures on how it will be addressed).  The next time you feel there might be bullying or conflict, take a look and ask,

  • Is it about an idea, behavior, or opinion? Yes? Then participate in respectful dialogue to creatively come to a solution for the opportunity (or problem).
  • Is it about a person (not their behavior but something about them personally)? Yes? Then respectfully request they apologize to the individual and redirect the conversation back to the issue (idea/behavior/opinion).
  • Is it persistent, tactical, and deliberate undermining and harming of a targeted individual? Is it deliberate ostracism of that targeted individual? Yes? Then that requires organizational intervention as the target requires support in resolving this extremely stressful and soul-crushing nightmare.

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”  Dalai Lama.

Here are some additional resources for understanding workplace bullying or workplace conflict:

Dr. David Yamada is a professor of law and expert on the topic of workplace bullying and has a new book released.  For more information:

Hoel, H., Glasø, L., Hetland, J., Cooper, C. L., & Einarsen, S. (2010). Leadership styles as predictors of self‐reported and observed workplace bullying. British Journal of Management, 21(2), 453-468.

Holmes, K. (2010) Human Resources Q & A: Fifteen signs of workplace bullying.

Rayner, C. & Keashley, L. (2005). Bullying at work: A perspective from Britain and North America. In S. Fox & P. E. Spector (eds.) Counterproductive work behaviour: Investigations of actors and targets (pp. 271-296). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.


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