Bullying at work: a successful way out of the nightmare

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“Maybe you can get away with this kind of species in Asia, but not here with us.”

For Kwon, who hails from South Korea, bullying is not a familiar term. He has been working for five months in a retirement home with elderly, mostly demented people.

Difficulties with a colleague

From the beginning, he doesn’t seem to have a good relationship with his colleague Ricarda, who started the probationary period at the same time as him. He feels like she doesn’t like him and may see him as competition. Behind his back, she spreads strange stories about him.

Growing isolation and insecurity

Kwon notices that he is increasingly ignored and the looks of his colleagues avoid him. Some even roll their eyes when he walks by or asks a question. He wonders if he may have done something wrong, as the entire group seems to be turning their backs on him.

Conflicts with the boss

Recently, he has had to answer to his boss more often. He was friendly at first, but now seems more and more skeptical, which worries him a lot because he has a lot of respect for the boss.

Seeking support and understanding

In the meantime, he has only one confidant who is friendly to him – the cleaning lady, as everyone calls her, or Beate, as he calls her, because that’s her name. Kwon wants to know from me what exactly is going on, whether what is happening at work is bullying, as Beate has whispered to him.

Cultural differences and challenges

Ricarda is a bit older, and in Korean culture, derogatory remarks from older people are more accepted. When the sentence was thrown at his head, he didn’t know how to react and politely said goodbye.

Fears about the future and the search for solutions

He is now worried about his reputation if this situation continues. Since he doesn’t expect much practical from psychotherapy , he wants to try life coaching.



Text: Bullying at work: a successful way out of the nightmare

1. Analysis Life Coach: 4 Strategies
2. What exactly is bullying? Systematic harassment
3. What bullying is not: criticism, conflict, and ignorance
4. The 4 Phases in Bullying: Kwon’s Situation
5. South Korean Culture and Social Bullying
6. Psychosomatic effects of bullying


1. Analysis Life Coach

After telling me about the bullying incident, Kwon now wants to know how to be more quick-witted . A change of profession is out of the question, he loves his job. He sees helping the elderly and needy as his calling. He gets a lot of recognition there.

In his private life, he would like to expand his circle of friends and acquaintances, as he feels increasingly isolated. So, overall, we have four clear goals that we will work on together.


Goal 1: Clarity on the concept of bullying and bookkeeping

Practical exercise: Keeping a bullying diary
Kwon keeps a bullying diary in which he notes unwanted incidents. It records the date, time, people involved, and a brief description of the incident. This allows them to better recognize, understand, and respond appropriately to the extent of the bullying behavior.


Objective 2: Measures against bullying: Clarifying conversation

Practical exercise: Preparation for the clarifying conversation
Kwon learns the art of a clarifying conversation with his boss and Ricarda. We plan carefully by developing strategies to best express his feelings and thoughts in order to strengthen his communication .


Goal 3: Strengthen self-confidence and quick-wittedness

Practical exercise: Positive self-affirmations and rhetoric training.

We practice positive self-affirmations to boost Kwon’s self-confidence. In addition, we train quick-wittedness exercises to help him react in a friendly but quick-witted way when confronted with negative behavior.


Goal 4: Expand your circle of friends and acquaintances

Practical Exercise: Active Participation in Social Activities

Kwon actively participates in social activities to expand his circle of friends and acquaintances. We develop strategies on how he can approach people in a cool, self-confident and uninhibited way, initiate conversations and make new contacts. Since he is not shy , he is making excellent progress.


Conclusion: A successful way out of the bullying nightmare

After working through the first 3 goals with Kwon, he develops a deeper understanding of bullying and how to deal with it. He has a clarifying conversation with his boss and Ricarda, during which he calmly and thoughtfully explains his point of view. Despite Ricarda’s resistance, Kwon manages to resolve the situation to his advantage.
A few weeks later, after the boss has taken a closer look and taken consistent action, the nightmare ends for Kwon. Ricarda didn’t make it through her probationary period, but Kwon did.
The atmosphere in the workplace improves noticeably. Kwon has shown courage and determination to overcome the bullying. He is now in the process of expanding his circle of friends and acquaintances, which is visibly easier for him after this burden has been lifted from his shoulder.


2. What is bullying?


Bullying: Psychological violence in the workplace

Workplace bullying is a serious social phenomenon that can negatively affect not only the person concerned, but also the work environment. It is a systematic and repetitive behavior in which one or more people intend to psychologically or physically bully, humiliate or ostracize another person.


Bullying: Systematic bullying

Bullying is characterized by long-lasting and intentional harassment, in which the affected person is exposed to a constant pattern of negative behavior. Intent to cause harm is a key element of bullying behavior.
Bullying through rumours, degradation and prejudice
In Kwon’s case, bullying manifests itself through the repeated spreading of rumors about him, frequent ignoring of his presence, and stoking prejudice based on his background and education.


3. What bullying is not

In any professional environment, interpersonal problems arise that can occasionally cause tension. That’s why it’s important to make a clear distinction between ‘normal’ criticism, conflict or inattention, and potential bullying. Here are 3 scenarios that illustrate when an action does not qualify as bullying:


1. Review:

As long as the criticism is only related to work performance, it is not bullying, but in the best case an opportunity for further development.


2. Conflicts:

Disagreements are a natural part of cooperation. As long as they do not lead to systematic harassment or exclusion, it does not constitute bullying.


3. Occasional ignorance:

Occasional ignoring or inattention does not constitute a bullying incident as long as it is not systematic. So not every negative or unwanted behavior can be interpreted as bullying.


Criteria of bullying not met in court ruling

A court ruling in Germany (LAG Rheinland-Pfalz, judgment of 19.08.2010, Az.: 6 Sa 318/10) concluded that certain conflicts and disagreements in the workplace cannot be classified as psychological harassment if they do not meet the criteria of repeated, systematic and vexatious acts aimed at harm. In this case, a conflict between colleagues was not considered bullying because the mentioned criteria were not met.


4. Bullying – 4 phases

In a 2003 study (‘Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace’), the renowned psychologist Professor Einarsen examines bullying as a process. He identifies four main phases: conflict development, escalation, crisis and damage phase, and resolution phase. Similar phases can also be observed in Kwon’s case. They can help to better understand Kwon’s situation and find a successful way out of his unhealthy situation.


Phase 1: Initiation and escalation of the conflict

It is at this stage that the first signs of conflict and negative behavior become visible, which can later lead to bullying.
Explanation: From the very beginning, Kwon experiences that his colleague Ricarda does not welcome him warmly and possibly sees him as competition. Ricarda’s racist comment suggests a negative attitude that could later turn into bullying.
Ricarda’s statement, “You may get away with this kind in Asia, but not here with us,” points to an obvious potential for conflict and reveals negative prejudices.


Phase 2: Systematic harassment and exclusion

In this phase, the negative behavior intensifies, and the affected person is targeted and excluded.
Explanation: Kwon notices that he is ignored by colleagues, and they even roll their eyes when he walks by. Ricarda tells strange stories about him behind his back and tries to diminish his reputation.
Example: Ricarda’s spread of rumors that Kwon doesn’t like old people and feels superior because of his academic background is aimed at damaging his standing and reputation.


Phase 3: Reinforcement of isolation and psychological distress

At this stage, the harassment leads to increasing isolation of the affected person and has a serious impact on their mental health.
Explanation: Kwon is increasingly ignored and isolated. He has only one caregiver who is friendly to him. The negative effects on his self-esteem and mood are noticeable.
Example: Kwon’s sense of isolation is exacerbated by the fact that he has only one friendly caregiver left and is shunned by most of his colleagues.


Phase 4: Clarification and resolution of the conflict

At this stage, the affected person looks for solutions to end the bullying and re-establish a positive work environment.
Explanation: Kwon turns to a life coach to find ways to deal with the situation, strengthen his quick-wittedness, and expand his social circle.
Example: Kwon wants to learn how to be friendly but quick-witted in order to defend himself against the negative behavior of his colleagues and at the same time expand his circle of friends.


Bullying: Escalation in the workplace

The phases of bullying illustrate the gradual escalation of conflicts in the workplace. Kwon’s case shows how initial prejudices and negative behavior can develop into a stressful situation.
The boundaries of the bullying spectrum are fluid, and it is important to pay attention not only to the obvious bullying behavior, but also to the psychological impact on the affected person.


5. South Korean Culture and Social Bullying

A country’s cultural norms and values play a crucial role in shaping social interactions in the workplace. South Korea is no exception. The understanding of bullying and the perception of social behavior are strongly influenced by these cultural factors. The following 3 features illustrate this:


1) Hierarchy and respect

South Korean culture places a high value on hierarchy and respect for authority figures. As a result, bullying can occur in subtle forms that are difficult to see from the outside.

Example: A young employee who, due to their lower work experience, is ignored or treated in a derogatory manner by older colleagues, without it being obviously bullying behavior.


2) Group orientation

Korean culture emphasizes the importance of the group and collective well-being. Bullying can come in the form of social exclusion to discipline or correct someone.

Example: A team member who is isolated from others in the group because they are perceived as not conforming to the group values.


3) Face-saving

The principle of saving face is of great importance in South Korea. Indirect forms of bullying, such as spreading rumors, can be used to damage someone’s reputation and hurt their reputation, leading to shame .

Example: Deliberately passing on information about a colleague in order to sow doubt about his competence and undermine his reputation.


Bullying: Conclusion

A comprehensive understanding of cultural dynamics is crucial to develop appropriate policies and strategies.
In Kwon’s case, all three features played a role. For him, it was less obvious what was actually going on in the workplace, as he comes from a different culture.
Awareness of these cultural-psychological aspects has led to faster success


6. Psychosomatic effects on bullying

Social bullying in the workplace can have serious adverse health consequences for the people concerned. Here are 15 impacts:

Low self-esteem:

The continuous disparagement and exclusion can significantly reduce the self-esteem of those affected.


Bullying can cause the affected person to isolate themselves and avoid social interactions, small talk , etc.

Psychosomatic complaints:

Bullying can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach pain, and palpitations.
Burnout: Persistent stress from bullying can turn into burnout syndrome , which causes exhaustion and emotional exhaustion.

Loss of joie de vivre:

Persistent psychological stress caused by bullying can cause the affected person to lose the joy of life.

Low motivation: bullying

can reduce motivation and enthusiasm for work and life in general.

Loss of authenticity:

Bullying can make the affected person feel compelled to hide their true personality in order to avoid confrontation. As a result, they don’t look authentic.

Changed mindset:

Persistent bullying can change the person’s thinking and attitude, which can lead to a negative mindset and a pessimistic view or philosophy .

The challenge of resilience:

Bullying tests psychological resilience and requires the development of coping strategies.

Limitation of empathy:

Constant bullying can lead to an impairment of the ability to empathize with others.

Anger and frustration:

Bullying can cause strong feelings of anger and frustration that can have a negative impact on mental health.
Loss of life goals:

Under the influence of heteronomy through bullying, a person’s personal and professional goals can fade into the background.


Bullying can exacerbate perfectionism by reinforcing the feeling that everything needs to be done just right to meet the bullies’ demands.

Inner Critics:

Bullying can amplify the inner critics that exist in many people and lead to negative self-talk that further affects self-esteem .

High sensitivity:

Highly sensitive individuals may be hypersensitive to bullying, which can lead to more intense emotional reactions such as anxiety, depression, or overwhelm.


© Timo ten Barge 10.04.24

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