Organisational culture in many American workplaces actively triggers, encourages and even rewards bullying, according to new research, with employees in the U.S. bullied up to 50 percent more often than those in Scandinavia.
New research to be published in the September issue of the Journal of Management Studies compared data for the U.S. and Scandinavia and found that what it terms "persistent workplace negativity" is between 20 percent to 50 percent higher for U.S. workers than for their Scandinavian counterparts.
The study, led by Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, found that 47 percent of U.S. workers reported experiencing one negative act at least weekly compared to 24 percent of workers in Finland and just 16 percent of those in Denmark.
Yet only one in 10 (nine per cent) of Americans were aware that the behaviour they experienced constituted bullying, leading the researchers to conclude that bullying behaviour is ingrained in the culture of the U.S. workplace.
"Although we cannot say definitively why this difference occurred, it could be that respondents have naturalized bullying as a normal part of the job, that "bullying" terminology has not made its way into popular American language, or that U.S. workers in this study associated the term with weakness or passivity and therefore avoided self-labeling," the study states.
"Indeed, the competitiveness of the U.S. culture may contribute to perceptions that being bullied reflects weakness. It also is possible that respondents successfully defended themselves against negative acts and thus believed their experiences fell outside the global definition that indicated bullying was a "situation where the targets have difficulty defending themselves."
At the heart of the problem, the study suggests, is the fact that U.S. organizational and cultural structures frequently enable, trigger, and reward bullying.
Companies stress market processes, individualism, and the importance of managers over workers, all of which discourages collaborative efforts and enables powerful individuals in organizations to bully others without recrimination.
Yet while bullies may escape censure for their actions, their behaviour nevertheless has significant consequences, even for non-bullied employees. Indeed the research found that the negative effects are widespread: employees who witness others being bullied suffer secondary harm, reporting high levels of stress, and low levels of work satisfaction.
"Workers suffering on the job and thinking they're 'going crazy' learn that the phenomenon has a name, what it looks like, that it happens to many workers, and potentially, what they might do about it," said Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik.
But she added, the study underlined the sad fact that bullying, as an underreported and relatively under-analyzed phenomenon, remains alive and well in the U.S. workplace.