Relational Aggression in the Workplace

Instructor: Allison Tanner
This lesson will discuss relational aggression in the workplace. After describing what such behavior might look like, the lesson goes on to provide guidance for dealing with this form of workplace abuse.

Relational Aggression

Amy has been terrorizing Jan for weeks. Jan used to regard Amy as a trusted colleague; now Jan realizes that anything she says to Amy will be used against her, or even twisted into words she never said. Even worse, Amy habitually gossips about Jan, spreading malicious rumors and lowering her voice to a whisper when Jan enters the room. When the team goes out for a coffee break, Amy makes sure that Jan is excluded from the expedition; in fact, the situation has deteriorated so badly that Jan doesn't even need to be explicitly uninvited. Amy's covert campaign of mockery and slander has successfully poisoned the office against Jan, who has internalized her colleagues' obvious, if unspoken, contempt.

Over the past few weeks, Jan has regularly been reduced to tears, often retreating to the restroom to hide her anguish. Amy's latent bullying is actively undermining Jan's work performance: Jan has spoiled her once-perfect attendance record by calling in sick several times; and Jan's daily work output, ordinarily stellar, has decreased by 20%.

Department Manager Mark is fed up with the abusive behavior polluting the office, but he has no experience dealing with aggression that doesn't actually look aggressive. Mark needs to figure out a proactive strategy to restore harmony and stability to the workplace; to this end, he seeks out Mr. Getalong, a relationship expert who advises schools and businesses on conflict resolution. When he sits down with Mr. G, he describes how Amy's reign of terror, bolstered by the complicity of her colleagues, has demoralized Jan and severely compromised her efficiency and productivity. After giving an account of the situation, Mark admits that the persistence of this subtle and deliberate cruelty is as confusing to him as it is troubling. Mr. G assures Mark that he can teach him effective strategies for resolving this conflict; however, in order to help Mark fix the problem, Mr. G needs to lay some contextual groundwork, by providing Mark with a coherent explanation of the behavior he has decribed. According to Mr. G, this behavior is a unique form of bullying, known as relational aggression (RA), which is characterized by the absence of explicit verbal or physical aggression. RA consists of deliberate psychological and social abuse aimed at manipulating popular perceptions of an individual and that individual's perception of himself. Ultimately, RA is a sustained effort to damage an individual's reputation and personal sense of self-worth.

It is important to remember, Mr. G explains, that workplace bullying encompasses all aggressive actions--physical, verbal, nonverbal--directed towards co-workers or subordinates. Relational aggression is only unique because of its reliance on covert and sly tactics.

Furthermore, Mr G. notes, RA most commonly occurs among females, who are traditionally taught to avoid using overt or physical forms of aggression. Although it is most prevalent during adolescence, RA can follow some women (either as victims or perpetrators) into adulthood. This does not mean that men cannot be relational aggressors, but men seem to prefer engaging in more direct forms of bullying, including verbal abuse and physical attacks.

How Relational Aggression Works

In order to give Mark an even better sense of the significance of RA, Mr. G uses Mark's own account to offer up an example of how RA can play out:

Imagine that Amy is telling colleagues that Jan thinks she is better than everyone else or that she is a suck-up who always wants attention. These colleagues start avoiding Jan, speaking about her behind her back, and they stop inviting her to group outings. As the stress of her colleagues' RA leads Jan to start missing work, Amy continues her covert campaign of abuse by describing Jan as lazy and incompetent to everyone at the office. She might even go so far as to ask, 'How did Jan even get this job anyway?'

This is classic RA and is meant to degrade Jan in the eyes of her colleagues. Other methods of RA include:

  • Purposefully excluding the victim from conversations or activities
  • Using the silent treatment or actively ignoring the victim
  • Spreading gossip or rumors; betraying the victim's confidence
  • Creating unwanted nicknames
  • Making fun of or joking about the victim

All of these behaviors influence how others see the victim and how the victim sees herself.

According to Mr. G, while RA is damaging to a person in any environment, it can become particularly toxic in the workplace.

Relational Aggression in the Workplace

Mr. G goes on to explain that Jan's loss of self-esteem is just one of the harmful effects of Amy's RA. In the workplace, RA can generate a negative organizational culture and decrease overall productivity.

Additional ways that RA undermines a successful business include:

  • Increased agitation of staff members
  • Loss of motivation to complete tasks
  • Decrease in overall productivity
  • Loss of profits due to an ineffective work environment

Mr. G explains that Amy's attacks on Jan are clearly reducing Jan's desire to complete tasks or even to come into work. Further, Amy's habit of badmouthing Jan to coworkers repeatedly stirs up internal conflict and reduces productivity. This demonstrates the broader implications of RA; its negative effects extend beyond the victim to the entire team.

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