Tell Me What You See: Workplace Bullying and Storytelling

By Laura Dzurec, PhD, PMHCNS-BC, ANEF, FAAN

I never cease to be impressed by the power of stories. It doesn’t matter whether I’m with my grandchildren, in front of a classroom full of nursing students, or working on a research report, it’s stories—not my careful recitation of facts and figures—that are the glue attracting and holding audience consideration and attention. There is incredible power in stories. Like this one:

 The devil whispered to all the 2020 teachers,
“Your not strong enough to withstand this storm.”
And the teachers simply whispered back,
“You’re.”

Twenty-three words that demonstrate power, that possibly capture the impact of COVID-19, and that even pay homage to the grammar police.

It was quite unexpectedly that I came to understand the power that stories offer to bullies:

She reported the physician’s action, after
he threw a clipboard at her.
“What did you do to make the physician
that angry?” said the Director of Nursing.
“I’m going to have to write you up.”

Just 35 words, told from the perspective of the bullying victim, capture bully power, making it easy to see the discrimination, injustice, humiliation, and far-reaching ramifications of bullies’ actions. From the perspective of the victim, bullying is about recognizing the perpetrator’s unassailable control. “From the perspective of the victim” is how bullying tends to be characterized. But if you look closely, what the story points to, as well, is history. It points to how identities are constituted and knowledge is produced. It points to a veritable spate of storytelling, proffered over time to legitimize the clipboard’s launch. It points to the stories bullies tell to set up situations like this in the first place, to validate their misappropriation of power and to show the world they have it.

Like Scheherazade across 1001 Arabian nights, bullies share anecdotes day after day in the workplace, revealing just enough ‘evidence’ to entice listeners, keeping them hanging and coming back for more. Their anecdotes—quips like, “it’s not me; they’re stupid” (Crawshaw, 2010, p. 68) and You are all “like a load of sheep” (Corney, 2008, p. 173)—roll together as stories, narratives with character, meaning, and plot. They suggest juicy tidbits of information, and there’s nothing listeners like better than a story that suggests juicy tidbits of information.

Bullies’ stories are ‘sticky,’ full of hint and inuendo that serve to codify and legitimize their controlling actions. It’s likely that you’ve heard workplace bullies’ stories many times. You may just not have recognized them when you did.

Subtlety and ambiguity are built into bullies’ stories; understatement and obfuscation are keys to their success. Their stories are simple, and at the same time, dramatic and personal. They are told with intent, woven into the storied fabric of day-to-day workplace operations: “I’m going to have to write you up.” What choice did the Director of Nursing have, really?

Bullies’ stories, despite their inherent absurdity, become legitimate because they are consistent with a culture infused by already-in-place workplace stories—stories that have long since established standards of worker expectation and experience. Against the backdrop of those stories, statements like “I’m going to have to write you up” make cognitive sense, at some level at least. Someone has to pay for upsetting the unassailable physician, because the physicians’ stories have already defined what constitutes acceptable behaviors in an acceptable ‘reality.’

The impact of bullies’ stories on listener belief is so complete that for most, walking away is not an option. Those who are taken in by the bully’s story, who succumb to the bully’s ethos, cannot forget the bully’s point. They cannot ignore the sense of inadequacy that the bully has suggested.  They get lost in the bully’s story, swimming in moral ambiguity (Tirrell, 1990), uncertain about what actions, beliefs, attitudes, and values are right and which are wrong. There’s a physiologic basis for that: stories couple listeners with the storyteller (Liu, et al., 2017). When the story is stressful, as bullies’ stories are, it actually shuts down rational thought, fostering, instead, unremitting anxiety and fear (Arnsten, 2015).

You might be saying to yourself, “Can’t happen; not to me—I’m smarter than that.” But you need only watch bullies in action to see how their stories impact listeners (maybe even you).

While many times, stories can serve as a resource for ameliorating stress (Miranda-Wolff, 2018), bullies’ stories do the opposite—they enhance stress among listeners and quicken the sense of self-doubt that most of us carry with us, tucked safely behind our earned certificates and prizes. They attach listeners’ complex emotions to the seemingly rational information they portray, affording themselves power (McGraw, 1998) and sagacity (Rolin, 2009).

Because bullies are artful in suggesting that their behaviors are legitimate, that there is ‘well-established understanding’ of their rights and authority, bullies’ stories hold sway within established organizational hierarchies. Acutely familiar with expected social mores, bullies just don’t believe those mores apply to them. And so what?

Well, in places of work, bullies’ stories destroy not only the individuals they target with their belittling behaviors and communications, but they also damage co-worker relationships, morale, and productivity. Like a drunk driver, bullies have the right of way (Coen, 2009), and they get it through sticky storytelling.

Left unattended, bullies’ stories actually will come to control workplace climate and the direction of operations, enwrapping everyone—from top administration to those assigned to offices in the basement—in their webs of deception. Bullies’ narrative skill, their exquisite awareness of what others value, their potent self-interest, and the very physiology that drives narrative understanding unite to foster bullies’ undeniable power. Truly, bullies’ power is power by design—power that is addictive and addicting as it manipulates through well-told story.

Implications for Nursing Education

While it might seem that bullies’ stories could quickly be put down in organizations, that’s not the process that typically ensues, even when someone victimized by a bully makes a report. (Remember that story?) Westercamp (2013) noted that organizations typically move through four stages in response to acts like bullying: denying that bullying exists; ignoring bullying once recognized; developing educational programming to stem the bullying; and, finally, pursuing correction through communication of clear expectations, training, consistent rule administration, and remedying victim experiences.

If clear communication and action coupled with co-worker training and support were all it takes to stop bullying, it might be worth organizational effort to complete these four steps. But typically, an information-based approach to understanding and changing bullying behaviors falls short (Gillen et al., 2017), as in response to a bully’s storied affronts, listeners tend to “size him up and jump to conclusions about what they think he is capable of. But they do not really see him” (Gladwell, 2014, p. 25).  (with apologies for the gendered reference)

Instead of thinking about bullies’ actions, seeing bullies for what they are is key to dealing effectively with their storytelling prowess. Active seeing requires recognition of the effectively indistinguishable misappropriation of power inherent in bullies’ morally disengaged and duplicitous, sticky stories. In the classroom and in clinical settings, recognition of that power is found through exercises in transformative learning (Sherwood & Horton-Deutsch, 2017).  Transformative learning requires reflection:

    1. on the problem itself—the lived impact of bullies’ stories;
    2. on the assumptions that drive the impact—that a web of belief has already been established through the bully’s stories; and
    3. on strategies to address the problem—noticing, interpreting, responding. Seeing bullying for what it is.

While it may indeed be the case that “wheresoever fools are flailing; wisdom there is held at bay” (Coen, 2009, p. 13), a look beyond bullies’ power and into the sticky stories they tell might help to assuage bullying’s disruptive menace and highlight bullies’ real insignificance in places of work. It might help bullying victims and bystanders across the workplace learn to tell themselves a different story.

Bullying has been around forever, and as workplace environments and learning demand complexify, it’s not likely to go away any time soon. The best response to the threat a bully imposes is to see and address bullies’ stories for what they are, as Nasrudin (reprinted in Ralston, 2010, p. 193) did here:

How are you?
Perfect, thank you. I’m traveling incognito.
Oh? And as what are you disguised?
I am disguised as myself.
Don’t be silly. That’s no disguise. That’s what you are.
On the contrary, it must be a very good disguise, for I see it has fooled you completely.
–Sufi Mullah Nasrudin

 References

Acerbi, A. (2019).  Cognitive attraction and online misinformation.  Palgrave Communications, 5(1), 1-7.

Arnsten, A. F., Raskind, M. A., Taylor, F. B., & Connor, D. F. (2015). The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. Neurobiology of stress1, 89-99.

Coen, E. (2009).  The drunken driver has the right of way (poems).  In ‘The drunken driver has the right of way. (pp. 13-14).  Three Rivers.

Dzurec, L. C., Kennison, M., & Albataineh, R.  (2014).  Unacknowledged threats proffered ‘in a manner of speaking:’ Recognizing workplace bullying as shaming.  Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 46, 281-291. DOI: 10.1111/jnu.12080

Dzurec L.C. (2020). Examining ‘sticky’ storytelling and moral claims as the essence of workplace bullying. Nursing Outlook.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.outlook.2020.05.007.

Gillen, P.A., Sinclair, M., Kernohan, W.G., Begley, C.M., & Luyben, A.G. (2017). Interventions for prevention of bullying in the workplace (Review). PMID:28134445 PMCID:pmc6464940. https://europepmc.org/articles/pmc6464940

Gladwell, M.  (2014).  David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants.  Penguin.

Liu, L., Zhang, Y., Zhou, Q., Garrett, D. D., Lu, C., Chen, A., Qiu, J., & Ding, G. (2020).  Auditory-articulatory neural alignment between listener and speaker during verbal communication. Cerebral Cortex, doi:10.1093/cercor/bhz138.

McGraw, K. M. (1998). Manipulating public opinion with moral justification. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS), 560, 129–142.

Miranda-Wolff (2018, September 30).  Tell yourself a different story.  https://medium.com/the-ascent/tell-yourself-a-different-story-220a40e27b14

Rolin, K. (2009). Standpoint theory as a methodology for the study of power relations. Hypatia. 24, 218–226. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.2009.01070.x. JSTOR 20618192.

Laura Dzurec is an educator, researcher, and nursing education administrator who has studied workplace context, dynamics, and bullying for the last 15 years. She is currently Nursing Research Scientist at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut.

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