Why is Bullying so Frequent in Academia? Diagnostics and Solutions for Bully-Proof Organizations

When I was in graduate school, my fellow students and I often joked about a paradox: How come that our Management departments (employing dozens of faculty experts in human resources, social psychology, and group dynamics) are a breeding ground for bullies?

Indeed, one thing that struck me throughout graduate school was how common bullying was. Over the five years of my PhD, I have been the target and witness of intimidation attempts, threats, and destructive criticism. In contrast, the “supportive environment”, the “emotional safety”, and the “constructive feedback” that management scholars praise as necessary conditions for thriving work environments were rare, if not absent.

In general, horror stories about bullies were widespread in all the departments I visited, and most people around me knew at least one “bully”: A professor regularly engaged in aggressive, hostile, or even destructive behaviors towards PhDs students or colleagues.

What do we mean by bullying?

Bullying can be tricky to define. First, it encompasses a large range of behaviors (e.g., incivility, intimidation, social isolation, humiliation, emotional abuse or physical aggression) in various contexts (school, family, workplace, social media). Second, it is hard to measure: Bullies rarely talk about their bullying behaviors, and victims do not necessarily report them [1-5]. However, there is a consensus that bullying is an aggressive behavior characterized by hostile intent, power imbalance and repetition [6].

A case study in bullying: Academia

Academia provides an interesting setting to understand bullying. Such behaviors appear unfortunately more common in higher education than in other industries: 33% of academics report being victim of bullying (vs. 2% to 20% of people employed in other industries depending on the country considered [2,7]). In particular, bullying behaviors seem particularly frequent in advisor-advisee relationships: The Nature 2019 PhD survey on more than 6300 early career-researchers revealed that 21% of respondents had been bullied during their PhD, and that for 48% of them the perpetrator was their supervisor. In most cases, the victims of bullying felt unable to report these behaviors, for fear of personal repercussions [8]. The qualitative data from the survey also give insights on the specific type of bullying actions advisors engage in, such as acting aggressively or being overly critical.

When do people bully?

Bullying has been connected to some specific personality traits such as aggressiveness, Machiavellianism, or lack of empathy. However, it would be incorrect to reduce bullying to something that “evil people” do: The environment plays a major role, and organizational structures and processes can deter or on the contrary encourage bullying [5]. Academia, for example, has multiple features that can be conducive to bullying:

  • A strong power imbalance between advisors and advisees.
  • A loose organizational structure, with little oversight.
  • An organizational culture in which the end justifies the means.
  • An unidimensional hiring and promotion process.

Power imbalance

The strongest power asymmetry in academia is between graduate students and their supervisor. Very early on, PhDs are required to closely work with a supervisor who is supposed to guide them through their PhD journey. Graduate students are highly dependent on their supervisor for access to data, research budget, networking opportunities, recommendation letters… In addition, this relationship is characterized by a certain degree of opacity and informality: Interactions between supervisors and PhDs are rarely monitored or attended by third parties. This dependence and isolation can pave the way for bullying behaviors.

Loose Management

A “laissez-faire” or inadequate leadership can lead to bullying behaviors [9–11]: If figures of authority in the organization are perceived as weak, it is assumed that they will not intervene in bullying situations, which gives free reign to potential bullies to abuse others [5].

Academic departments are organized as “entrepreneurial spaces” in which professors are expected to self-manage most aspects of their work: time management, teaching, research pipeline, collaboration with co-authors, or supervision of graduate students. In addition, most academics dislike interference in what they are doing and how they are doing it: Many acknowledge that they pursued a career in academia precisely because they did not want to have a boss. However, this absence of leadership makes it easier for bullies to engage in abusive behaviors without facing repercussions.

High-Performance Organizational Culture

The academic culture is full of mythologies that justify bullying. It praises values of dominance, competitiveness, and high achievement in which bullying behavior may be perceived as only slightly transgressive, or even as an efficient way to “toughen up” aspiring academics.

The very revealing adage of academia, “publish or perish”, sets the tone of this culture. Publications in top journals define the pecking order among academics, and by the same token, make most behaviors justifiable as long as they can help achieve this goal. This ethos, that makes publishing a matter of survival, legitimizes abusive behaviors.

In addition, many academics rationalize and romanticize their past suffering, and frame it as a necessary condition to success: “Yes, the Ph.D. was tough, but it was a transformative experience, and the thick skin that I developed is now helping me thrive.” Once people hold this view, they are less likely to view bullying as an issue that needs to be solved, and less likely to take the suffering of graduate students seriously. After all, if they complain about bullying, maybe they are not “cut for the job".

This organizational culture makes particularly difficult both for PhD programs to intervene into abusive situations and for PhDs to report the behaviors they are victim of: Once everybody has internalized the idea that suffering is necessary to succeed, there is no more reason to fight against it.

“Brilliant Jerks”

Finally, academics are selected and promoted on their publication records, and much less so on their social skills and emotional intelligence. This may be surprising given that academics manage many different relationships (e.g., supervisor-supervisee, co-authors, authors-reviewers, professor-students…), have a job in which collaborations are frequent and essential, and are expected to mentor the new generations of scholars.

This narrow selection process can have multiple negative effects. It weeds out people who have good social skills but have a weaker publication record, it signals that social skills are not worth developing, and most importantly it legitimizes the stereotype of the “brilliant jerks”: prolific researchers who lack basic social skills (i.e., emotional regulation, self-reflection, and perspective-taking). Indeed, it is not rare to find that departments are willing to recruit, promote or even protect bullies, as long as they have the right number of publications, sending the message that toxic behaviors can be bargained [12].

Building a Bully-Proof Organization

While the economic cost of workplace bullying is difficult to assess, the negative consequences are well-documented. Victims are more likely to suffer from emotional issues, health disorders, extreme stress, feelings of worthlessness and shame [13]. Organizations suffer from an erosion of creativity, a reduced organizational commitment, job dissatisfaction, a decreasing productivity, an increased absenteeism, and a higher turnover rate [14–16]. How can we then avoid these behaviors, and build “bully-proof” organizations, in academia and elsewhere?

1. Not hiring bullies: “the people make the place”

The most obvious solution is not to hire people who are more likely to engage in this type of behavior. This strategy requires that organizations try to screen bullies during the recruitment and promotion process. Research suggests [17–19] that bullies are more likely to exhibit specific personality traits:

  • They are aggressive, hostile, competitive, assertive, confrontational, impulsive, and moody.
  • They have difficulty to self-analyze, to regulate their emotions and lack empathy.
  • On the OCEAN personality inventory, they are typically low in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness and high in Neuroticism and Extraversion.
  • They can also be high in narcissism and psychopathy.

However, the diagnostic value of these personality traits is low: Screening on personality alone would exclude many people who are not bullies and let in many others who are bullies.

In addition, organizations should base their recruitment and promotion decisions not only on productivity and achievement, but also on social skills and emotional intelligence. Research suggests that hiring toxic workers can be incredibly costly for companies, even when those toxic workers are high performers [20]: Between hiring a superstar (very high performer) and avoiding a toxic worker, companies are often better off avoiding the toxic worker.

2. Evaluating structural factors that allow bullies to thrive

Another important step is to determine organizational features that might enable bullying. Many aspects of organizational culture may accidentally foster bullying and should therefore be considered carefully:

  • The quest for excellence (e.g., top chefs in the kitchen industry) [21]; an organizational culture that celebrates toughness (e.g., army, prisons, firefighters) [22–25].
  • A socialization process that features initiation rituals (e.g., hazing) [5,26].
  • A large number of informal and casual behaviors that make more difficult for some employees to distinguish “proper and professional” behaviors from “borderline and inappropriate” behaviors [27].

Those features can serve useful purposes. However, when many of them are present, it is important to be mindful that they can facilitate bullying.

3. The “no asshole rule”

On the 20th of January 2021, Joe Biden swore in nearly 1,000 federal employees. During this virtual ceremony, he felt the need to emphasize that under his watch, disrespect and condescendence among his collaborators would not be tolerated. As a leader, publicly and strongly reaffirming that bullying and other destructive behaviors do not have room in the organization can be a very powerful move.

To be effective however, this zero-tolerance policy must be accompanied with effective policies that discourage and punish bullying, and on the contrary reward constructive interactions [28]. If leaders do not walk the talk, they risk promoting a culture of impunity and hypocrisy within the organization.

To go further…


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Zoé Ziani
Zoé Ziani

PhD in Organizational Behavior