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Bullying (Part 10): Power in Hierarchies

  • Posted on November 20, 2010 at 6:17 PM

As I suggested in my last post, I believe power is a necessary social force that is prone to corruption.  Bullying is one form of this corruption.

Bullying for the sake of power is a form of bullying to which we are all susceptible.  The only way to avoid it completely, if that’s even possible, would be to become so powerful that you were too entrenched to be bullied.  Of course, to get that kind of entrenched power you’d be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

To say we are all susceptible does not mean we all experience it, or that we all experience it to the same degree.  It means a life well-lived, a person well-liked, and a situation secured by socially acceptable means cannot protect one from this form of bullying.  You can do everything “right” and still be bullied.

For those of us who do not or cannot do everything “right,” by which I mean we cannot or do not adhere to social standards, this form of bullying seems to be even more common.  I suspect this has more to do with lack of power than targeting differences.  Simply put, we’re lower on “the pecking order,” and therefore have more people with the power to bully us.  I say this because those who are different but have their own power base are not subject to as much of this kind of bullying; furthermore, as I have gained a larger power base, I have been subjected to less of this kind of bullying.

Pecking orders, or social hierarchies, can be established in just about any social system.  They are often systemized in organizations.  In the management of organizations, this systemization acts as structure—assuming the competence of members, bullying is unnecessary.  Commands filter through the hierarchal structure, and those commands are carried out based on the authority of those issuing the commands.  However, not all members of the structure are competent.  Thus, bullying occurs.  When the authority of the individual is not sufficient to earn obedience, the manager may resort to bullying to get things done.  Lack of management skills or lack of competence in exercising one’s role in a particular position is often the culprit.  Instead of improving his or her management style, the manager relies on bullying the employees under him or her to get the results he or she desires.  In the short term, this can work.  So, bullying goes in the toolbox.  In the long term, it creates a toxic environment that damages the manager, the employees, and the organization.

Social hierarchies also happen outside organizations and in more informal organizations.  You see the childhood version of this in cliques at school.  One of the boys or girls in the clique is in the top position, as tenuous as that is, and leads the others.  Bullying behaviors are often used to maintain such a position.  These behaviors also can continue into the adult world, depending on the social situations you choose to involve yourself in.  It can happen in families as well.

Bullying for the sake of power—either to gain more power or to secure the power one has—can be found in any such social hierarchy, and all of us are touched by these hierarchies.  Addressing this dynamic depends less on where it occurs, or even why, but depends more on how it occurs, from the bullies’ perspectives, which I will cover in more detail in my next post.