Beyond the tip of the Iceberg

A friend of mine uses an expression sometimes when describing people – he might say ‘That’s just Mary’s way of being in the world’.  It has a nice air of tolerance about it, (at least as he says it!) but it can also be more sinister, and it’s a phrase that comes to mind when trying to explain why workplace bullying is more common in some organisations than others. Some organisations have a ‘way of being in the world’ that makes it far more likely that the workers in that organization will be bullied. But in the case of an organization, we cannot be so blithely tolerant. Mitigation is necessary, as bullying leads to serious damage for those who are targeted but also those who witness it. A given that ‘way of being’, mitigation is required at the deepest level.

It helps to consider the problem of workplace bullying as an iceberg. Icebergs appear to be floating on the surface but in reality they are large masses of ice that are mainly below water and this is the part that is potentially the most dangerous.

The visible, above water, aspect of workplace bullying is usually negative behaviour enacted by one person, systematically, to another. Because this ‘tip’ is the visible part, it is often the focus of organizational interventions – attempts to address specific behaviours in isolation from the root causes. Focusing on what is visible is problematic for other reasons. It is not entirely straightforward as what is considered ‘negative’ can be subjective, at least at one end of the spectrum of negative behaviour, what Parezfall and Salin (1) call the ‘threshold’ for bullying. It varies between individuals according to experiences and their interpretations of a situation, and can vary within an individual according to context or perhaps because of other things going on in their lives at any point in time.

However, from an organizational responsibility point of view it is important that this subjectivity element does not allow the organization to ‘kick to touch’. Organisations can rather conveniently consider bullying to be in the eye of the beholder, a very dangerous positioning for workers in that organisation. In the interviews we have conducted, there are many clear examples at the other end of the spectrum of shouting, rumour spreading, ritual humiliation, which are negative and damaging in anyone’s books.  It is important that those who are responsible for protecting staff in organisations are aware that bullying can move along a spectrum to become very damaging. Whether the senior management of an organisation is willing to consider the fact that bullying is a process and that the less aggressive, ambiguous behaviours are early warning signs and to keep a watching brief depends very much their way of being in the world, and that is really what is below the water.

There are certain ways of working that have been established to be closely associated with higher levels of bullying. Excessive demand or work pressure, ambiguity or lack of clarity about roles, and poor levels of personal control over work are all associated with work-related stress but also with bullying(2-5). While for certain jobs, regardless of the organization, high demand and low control (for example waiting on tables in a restaurant, or working as a nursing aide) are the norm, for the most part organisations can take steps to mitigate against allowing their workforce to be constantly working under these conditions, if they wish it.

Other below surface factors include internal reward systems that foster intense competition(6, 7), such as what might be found in sales organisations, or Universities. Such systems do not have the explicit aim of fostering bullying but provide ample breeding ground for the micropolitical behavours that are common in accounts of workplace bullying.  And it suits the employers to ignore this feature of the work environment they have created.

This brings us to the deepest level below the water and the most pernicious way of being in the world.

While psychosocial risk factors such as excessive demand, low control and role ambiguity are seen as causes of workplace bullying, these causes have causes of their own. The purest expression of an organisation’s way of being in the world is its culture. Implicated in many qualitative studies as the root of bullying problems, it is clearly at the deepest level, and the hardest therefore to surface.

Culture is essentially about values and beliefs. How the founders or senior managers or in essence the top\powerful people in an organization view work, workers and how to motivate and manage their workers is the key to the organisations way of being in the world. Cultural beliefs that cause the causes of bullying are likely to include a belief that workers need punitive working conditions to ‘motivate’ them, need to be pressurised to achieve results, and if they deign to raise the issue of bullying, they are perceived to be slacking or a troublemaker. Also, the ‘target’ can be considered to be resisting being managed. If profits are valued over people, then it is inevitable that people will be mistreated.

Some researchers go further, exploring the idea that in some organisations, bullying is blind-eyed because it suits management to do so. For example.

as part of the labour process, management can and will use various means to maximise production and maintain control, and this can include bullying tactics, as the boundaries between unacceptable behaviour and legitimate management practice can be either inadvertently or deliberately blurred (8, 9).

But also, bullying can be blind-eyed because employers do not want the negative publicity that a case will bring, or simply because they do not try to understand the process and the costs incurred on the individual. Their way of being in the world is to see relationships between workers as fixable by mediation, a little like broken machines, with no real knowledge of human relationships and the complexities there forth.

Organisations can change. They change and adapt to survive in turbulent economies, so they can change too, to become more humane and ethical. Although our mental images of icebergs see then as large mountainous masses, apparently icebergs can flip over. And when they do, they are particularly beautiful.


1.          Parzefall MR, Salin DM. Perceptions of and reactions to workplace bullying: A social exchange perspective. Human Relations. 2010;63(9):761-80.

2.          Blackwood K, Bentley T, Catley B, Edwards M. Managing workplace bullying experiences in nursing: the impact of the work environment. Public Money and Management. 2017:349-56.

3.          Tuckey M, Dollard M, Hosking M, Winefield AH. Workplace bullying: The role of psychosocial work environment factors. International Journal of Stress Management. 2009;16(3):215-32.

4.          Skogstad A, Torsheim T, Einarsen S, Hauge LJ. Testing the Work Environment Hypothesis of Bullying on a Group Level of Analysis: Psychosocial Factors as Precursors of Observed Workplace Bullying. Applied Psychology: An International Review. 2011;60(3):475-95.

5.          Blomberg S, Rosander M. Exposure to bullying behaviours and support from co-workers and supervisors: a three-way interaction and the effect on health and well-being. International Archives of Occupational & Environmental Health. 2020;93(4):479-90.

6.          Georgakopoulos A, Wilkin L, Kent B. Workplace Bullying: A Complex Problem in Contemporary Organisations. International Journal of Business and Social Science. 2011;2(No. 3):1-20.

7.          Salin D. Ways of Explaining Workplace Bullying: A Review of Enabling, Motivating and Precipitating Structures and Processes in the Work Environment. Human Relations. 2003;56(10):1213-32.

8.          Ironside M, Seifert R. ‘Tackling Bullying in the workplace: the collective dimension’. In: Einarsen s, Hoel H, Zapf D, CL. C, editors. Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace London: Taylor and Francis.; 2003.

9.          Beale D. An Industrial Relations Perspective of Workplace Bullying. In: Einarsen S, Hoel H, Zapf D, Cooper CL, editors. Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace Developments in Theory, Research and Practice. London: Taylor and Francis; 2011.