Four theoretical paradigms of workplace bullying

Term Paper, 2014
8 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents




Critical Management Theory




In this paper I will discuss the characteristics of the four theoretical paradigms of workplace bullying after Samnani (2013) and make an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.

According to Bratton and Gold (2012), workplace bullying is defined as a personalized attack from one employee to another employee that takes place on a constant basis for a certain time using emotionally threatening behaviors. As a result the employee's self-esteem, self- confidence and work-competence could be injured. Moreover, the imbalance of power between perpetrator and victim needs to be considered. Workplace bullying needs to be taken as a serious issue since its effects are not only limited to the performance of the people involved but also to the whole organization (Bratton and Gold 2012).

The four theoretical paradigms, as mentioned by Samnani (2013), are: Functionalism, Interpretivism, Critical Management Theory, and Postmodernism. They differ in causes of workplace bullying, philosophical beliefs, and implications (Samnani 2013).

There are three major areas in workplace bullying literature: One is the mostly qualitative measured prevalence rate of workplace bullying in a country, organization or industry.

Secondly there are identifying antecedents of workplace bullying, and last of all the physical, psychological and work-related consequences for the bullying victim of workplace bullying. For brevity’s sake the focus of this reflection paper will be on the antecedents of bullying (Samnani 2013).


This first paradigm is based on “understanding and explaining the order and regularities of social affairs while approaching subject matter from an objectivist perspective” (Samnani 2013, 28). Functionalism is in many cases the basis for other approaches. The main focus of functionalist research is to provide practical solutions for the problems (Samnani 2013).

According to Burrell and Morgan (2005) the Functionalism in the twentieth was influenced by German idealistic traditions from Max Weber, George Simmel and George Herbert Mead. Since the 1940s (also) certain Marxist influences changed the Functionalism as well (Burrell and Morgan 2005).

In case of workplace bullying there are three main variables aspects: Personality, Demographics, and Leadership (Samnani 2013).

Focusing on the antecedents of bullying there have been researches about the influence of personality characteristics of the target relating to workplace bullying. It is implied that it is more likely to become a victim of bullying if the employee had a higher level of anxiety and sadness. Furthermore, demographics such as race or ethnicity are connected with workplace bullying. Also the leadership plays an important role, as for instance laissez-faire leadership can easier lead to workplace bullying compared to other kinds (Samnani 2013).

Of all existing theories of this phenomenon, the victim precipitation theory is most suitable for antecedents of bullying. It states that specific characteristics of an employee can lead to bullying; therefore this theory focuses on the determination of these characteristics (Samnani 2013).

Methods used in Functionalism can either be quantitative or qualitative:

In case of the victim precipitation theory a quantitative method is used. It implicates that one variable (personality) causes the occurrence of another variable (bullying). The relationship between specific characteristics of the employee and bullying is being measured (Samnani 2013).

Qualitative studies show similar patterns but their focus is placed on deciding which variable rather leads to the outcome, for example, whether bullying is more likely a result of certain types of employees or procedures (Samnani 2013).

The relationship of the variables can be measured by interviews or ethnography. In most cases the relation is easily predictable (Samnani 2013).

As practical implications “hiring, socialization, and/or training practices” (Samnani, 29) are mentioned by researchers (Samnani 2013).

To sum up, a strength of this approach is that the relation of the identified factors of the outcome is rather straightforward (Samnani 2013). Moreover, the practical solutions mediated by the functionalist research are highly pragmatic and intend to provide knowledge for the practical experience (Vogel 2006).

A major problem of functionalism is that it can easily happen, that in the case of bullying, for instance, the victim is considered to be in charge. In addition, psychosocial risks within the organization need to be investigated as well as a more detailed description of the matter and the phenomenon. This paradigm tends to be univocal (Samnani 2013).

As a result of being objective it can rather be difficult to just use a definition and a scale to evaluate complex psychosocial processes like workplace bullying (Samnani 2013).


The focus of this paradigm is “to understand the social world at the level of individual meaning and experience“ (Samnani 2013, 30). It is also important to analyze and understand the framework of the participants directly involved in workplace bullying (Samnani 2013).

“In its approach to social science it tends to be nominalist, antipositivist, voluntarist and ideographic. It sees the social world as an emergent social process which is created by the individuals concerned” (Burrell and Morgan 2005, 28).

It is influenced by the thoughts of society from the German idealism of the mid-eighteenth century mainly characterized by Kant (Burrell and Morgan 2005).

For researches of Interpretivism it is more crucial to understand the interpretations, experiences and processes of the people involved than to measure variables. Consequently they give the participants an opportunity to provide extensive descriptions of their experiences. Based on these gained information, a better understanding of the problem is possible (Samnani 2013).

The most suitable framework used, in case of workplace bullying, is the symbolic interactionism because it can help “exploring employees’ understanding of their bullying experiences” (Samnani 2013, 30). Researches use a variety of qualitative methods with an inductive theory construction (Vogel 2006) to understand the participant’s experiences, as for example in interviews or narratives they can describe their experiences in detail (Samnani 2013).

It is a good method to allow victims of workplace bullying to express their emotional pain and describe how they saw themselves and the bullies during the bullying period. Metaphors can help researches to understand the experience of the targets and how they interpret the situation (Samnani 2013).

The strength of the interpretivism is the possibility not only to understand the participant’s actions and feelings by receiving extensive descriptions but also understand the involved symbols. Moreover, the emotions and in general the psychological aspects can be taken into consideration because of the subjectivity of the approach. Furthermore, not just a theoretical but also a practical perspective is adding value to the investigation (Samnani 2013).

Diversity within the paradigm could one see as weakness or strength, depending on the perspective (Samnani 2013).

Critical Management Theory

This paradigm is a combination of radical humanism and radical structuralism with focus on critical analysis and radical change (Samnani 2013). As the radical humanism is subjective, the radical structuralism in contrast is objective based (Burrell and Morgan 2005). The basis of the theory, which is systemic and structural, is not only the imbalance of the power between the bully and the victim but also a broader issue. It is not focused on pragmatic implications (Samnani 2013).

Because of a belief system, formulated by the powerful, it is accepted that order, authority and discipline are essential. In consequence, the position of the bully is being acknowledged and for instance abusive management practices are seen as a form of order, authority and discipline, which makes it a usual/common situation (Samnani 2013).

The Weberian theory of bureaucracy can be instructive about workplace bullying. It states that the management tends to dehumanize their employees and develops impersonal relations within the organization. Similar to interpretivism, the critical management theory deals with understanding phenomena of organizations with information directly coming from the participants. Qualitative methods like interviews, narratives and ethnography are therefore used (Samnani 2013).

Not only a perpetrator but also the organization can be seen as the bully. Because of reward structures the manager is often seen as the scapegoat as they need to ensure performance of the company. Already the phrase “discipline” is associated with constant bullying by participants (Samnani 2013). Employees are affected by “strict monitoring of performance metrics, constant threats of punishment, and fostering of conditions that result in interpersonal bullying incidents” (Samnani 2013, 32). The management needs to be aware of the effects that power and control can have on the employees (Samnani 2013).

All in all, a strength of the Critical Management Theory lies in the systematics and structure. In addition, it is also beneficial that wider influence of the society is regarded and the phenomena are characterized from the people directly involved. Ethical reflections are crucial as well (Samnani 2013).

“Although critical management theory is not focused on offering pragmatic implications to employers from a performance perspective, contributions toward becoming a more ethical and fair organization can certainly be offered” (Samnani 2013, 32).


The last paradigm, Postmodernism, implies that not only one objective truth exists but rather multiple “truths”. It focuses more on individual than on institutional or professional interests. The concept of control plays a central role as mentioned in the critical management theory (Samnani 2013).

Workplace bullying is seen as precursor that will lead to abuse in a form that “cannot be classified under the current legal definitions of violence, assault, sexual harassment, or so on” (Samnani 2013, 32). Through making bullying behaviors recognizable, this approach tries to get the victims to take a stand themselves for their interests and gain advantageous remedies. As a concrete instance of workplace bullying in connection with the notion of control, high- performance work systems could be mentioned. With a functional background they can be seen as reasonable and convenient for the whole organization. Nevertheless, in this system the performance at work of an individual is regarded as more important than its well-being and work-life balance. Therefore bullying situations can be the involuntary outcome (Samnani 2013). As Samnani (2013, 33) points out “this form of control is exercised through what management portrays as legitimate processes. Therefore, targets tend to perceive bullying acts as normal or natural.”

As theoretical framework the Postmodernism uses the Foucauldian theories of power, which suggests that there is a constant supervision through power. Qualitative methods are used for research with interviews and textual material (Samnani 2013).

Implications would in general be with an ethical focus. To react against employee’s alienation the superiors need to realize the effects of control within the organization. For understanding why negative behaviors from employees can occur, bullying situations can be stimulated as it can provide organizations an insight to the consequences of different habits and rules concerning control and power (Samnani 2013).


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Four theoretical paradigms of workplace bullying
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Anonymous, 2014, Four theoretical paradigms of workplace bullying, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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