What if we stop workplace bullying towards change agents?

Author: Derya Tombuloğlu

After 14 years of experience in business life, one of my most heart-breaking observations is:

Most of the change agents (may it be a CEO or a trainee) in any organization (may it be a school or a corporation) are being bullied rather than encouraged.

As someone who had a fast-track business life, getting a full-time job during college, becoming the head of a department at 27, starting my own business at 31, I’ve not been exempt from bullying. I’ve been subject to or have witnessed workplace bullying at different levels, but mostly it was whenever I challenged preconceived ideas or suggested new ways of doing things. For the first couple of years of my career, I assumed that my ideas were not good enough, or I could not express them clearly. No one has ever told me that mocking or ignoring an idea without reason would be considered bullying.

Before diving deep into the topic, my advice to young people at the beginning of their career: Even if you have less experience than your managers, you might still have better ideas than them. If you ever get discouraging feedback, it does not indicate the quality of your idea but the quality of the leadership in your workplace.

What exactly is workplace bullying?

‘Workplace bullying refers to systematic and persistent exposure to negative acts at work (Einarsen, 2000). It is the harmful, targeted behavior that might be spiteful, offensive, mocking, or intimidating. It forms a pattern, and it tends to be directed at one person or a few people.

The victims of bullying often experience difficulties defending themselves (Leymann, 1996) and are forced into an inferior position (Einarsen et al., 1994). They want the negative acts to stop, while the ‘perpetrator’ is not inclined to change this behavior (Hubert et al., 2001).

It has been clear to me since early ages that bullies, in general, are in desperate need of attention; they lack the courage and capacity to express themselves or connect with others. Bullying has always been something that bothers me most in life, but recently, observing workplace bullying towards the people who are driven by changing things for the better started to annoy me even more. I couldn’t help but wonder…

What is it about change that triggers bullies so much?
Why do they feel threatened by these “change agents”?
What makes them want to humiliate another person just for asking a beautiful question?

As an insight-driven strategist, I tried to discover the reasons behind it.

So I did a quick research on the topic and was surprised to see that a considerable number of hypotheses have been formulated regarding the relationship between organizational change and bullying (e.g., Hoel et al., 2002; McCarthy, 1996).

A study sponsored by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF) showed a significant association between exposure to workplace bullying and organizational change (Hoel and Cooper, 2000). Later I realized that most of the studies focus on top-down transformation efforts where employees suffer the consequences of unfair management decisions. I could not come across many examples focusing on bottom-up transformation efforts where employees suggest change. That itself tells a story. However, for the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on behavioral data that I gathered from the studies to share my reflections on the issue, hoping that it would help the change agents understand what they are up against in their organizations.

The Formula of Change

In the 1960s, David Gleicher created a formula for change; I’ll use Kathie Dannemiller’s version of it to structure my thoughts.

D x V x F > R

Change is happening if only our (D)issatisfaction with how things are now, multiplied by our positive (V)ision of what is possible, multiplied by our (F)irst concrete step to move is greater than the (R)esistance to change.


We know that change agents love change; they find comfort out of their comfort zone. They put more value on gains during the way rather than the potential loss at the end. However, studies show that’s not the case for most people. The psychological process of experiencing change elicits a negative attitude (Heath et al., 1993), and people frequently tend to prefer a known situation to an unknown future. While change may involve both gains and losses, people experience the pain of loss as greater than the pleasure of gain (e.g. Tversky and Kahneman, 1992).

Moreover, it is believed that when you’ve been doing something a particular way for some time, “that way of working” is automatically validated, so why change it? A study shows that people have a very reliable and tangible preference for things that have been around longer. I have no doubt that the most frequent sentence heard by the change agents all over the world is: “This is how we’ve always done things.”

When it comes to “D” of Gleicher’s Formula, I believe that change agents’ dissatisfaction with the current situation is much greater than others. As most people take comfort from operating in an “energy-efficient” way, change agents’ desire to alter the current reality might be looking like a threat to them.


Change agents are driven by personal growth, not the paycheck. They believe in a better future, and that’s why changing life for the better comes prior to securing their job.

However, studies show that this is not true for all of us; it is proven that the insecurity concerning the nature and existence of a job (Ashford et al., 1989; Greenglass and Burke, 2001) encourages bullying at the workplace during the period of organizational change (Appelberg et al., 1991; Einarsen and Raknes, 1997). The same seems to be true for role ambiguity (e.g., Vartia, 1996) and job conflict (e.g,. Einarsen et al., 1994; Notelaers and De Witte, 2003). For most people, their successes in the past play a significant role in their self-esteem, and they don’t want to risk it.

Back to Gleicher’s Formula, I believe that change agents’ positive vision for a better future is much greater than others; they can see the world beyond the titles or positions. In a world where humans are misportrayed as the Homo economicus (the inherently rational, greedy, and self-interested beings), change agents seem to be “naive” dreamers in the eyes of others.

(F)irst Step

The final step on the formula tells us that taking the first concrete step contributes to the likelihood of change. We know that change agents are passionate and intuitive; they don’t mind taking the first step toward reaching a better future.

On the other hand, most people worry about the potential high workload (e.g. Agervold and Mikkelsen, 2004; Appelberg et al., 1991) when it comes to change. In today’s organizations, moving beyond “job descriptions” has been considered as a threat to our daily well-being or potential danger of stepping into “someone else’s” zone. I have sadly seen many people refuse a helping hand for the sake of protecting their own territory. They sacrifice the opportunity of doing better with the fear of looking “less.”

As you can see, there might be fair reasons behind people’s resistance to change. However, none of these reasons justify the acts of bullying.

Now for a moment, remember all the change agents you met in your life… that teacher at school, that engineer at the factory, that nurse at the hospital, that professor at the university, that clerk at the shop, all of those who wanted to change things for the better but have been silenced, offended, or even marginalized and expelled…

What if they were encouraged instead of discouraged? What if they summon up one day and get back to where they started… with the same passion, courage, and motivation? What would the world look like? I’d love to see that.

As HMD, one of our four pillars of organizational transformation is identifying and activating these change agents. We call them restless believers who act as catalysts for change by inspiring and influencing key individuals in their organization. They might be few in numbers, but they are A LOT in their capabilities. For the last couple of years, we met many of them; they have always been the most significant contributors to the projects regardless of their profession or position. Some of them were teachers, some of them were CEOs… We always enjoy the journey with them and promise to be their partner in change, for the better or worse.


Main reference article for this reflection piece:
Baillien, Elfi & De Witte, Hans. (2009). Why Is Organizational Change Related to Workplace Bullying? Role Conflict and Job Insecurity As Mediators. Economic and Industrial Democracy — ECON IND DEMOCRACY. 30. 348–371. 10.1177/0143831X09336557.

Publications mentioned within the article:
Agervold, M. and E.G. Mikkelsen (2004) ‘Relationships between Bullying, Psychosocial Work Environment and Individual Stress Reactions’, Work and Stress 18(4): 336–51.

Appelberg, K., K. Romanov, M. Honlasalo and M. Koskenvuo (1991) ‘Interpersonal Conflicts at Work and Psychosocial Characteristics of Employees’, Social Science Medicine 32: 1051–6.

Ashford, S.J., C. Lee and P. Bobko (1989) ‘Content, Causes, and Consequences of Job Insecurity: A Theory-Based Measure and Substantive Test’, Academy of Management Journal 32(4): 803–29.

Einarsen, S., B.I. Raknes and S.B. Matthiesen (1994) ‘Bullying and Harassment at Work and their Relationships to Work Environment Quality: An Exploratory Study’, European Work and Organizational Psychologist 4(4): 381–401.

Einarsen, S. (2000) ‘Harassment and Bullying at Work: A Review of the Scandinavian Approach’, Aggression and Violent Behaviour 5(4): 379–401.

Greenglass, E.R. and R.J. Burke (2001) ‘Downsizing and Restructuring: Implications for Stress and Anxiety’, Anxiety, Stress and Coping 14: 1–13.

Heath, C., M. Knez and C. Camerer (1993) ‘The Strategic Management of the Entitlement Process in the Employment Relationship’, Strategic Management Journal 14: 75–93.

Hoel, H. and C.L. Cooper (2000) Destructive Conflict and Bullying at Work. Manchester: School of Management, UMIST.

Hoel, H., D. Zapf and C.L. Cooper (2002) ‘Workplace Bullying and Stress’, pp. 293–333 in P.L. Perrewé and D.C. Ganster (eds) Historical and Current Perspectives on Stress and Health. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Hubert, A., J. Furda and H. Steensma (2001) ‘Mobbing, systematisch pestgedrag in organisaties: Twee studies naar antecedenten en gevolgen voor de gezondheid’, Gedrag en Organisatie 14(6): 378–96.

Leymann, H. (1996) ‘The Content and Development of Mobbing at Work’, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 5(2): 165–84.

McCarthy, P. (1996) ‘When the Mask Slips: Inappropriate Coercion in Organisations Undergoing Restructuring’, in P. McCarthy, M. Sheehan and D. Wilkie (eds) Bullying: From Backyard to Boardroom. Alexandria, NSW: Millennium Books.

Notelaers, G. and H. De Witte (2003) ‘Over de relatie tussen pesten op het werk en werkstress’ [On the Relationship between Bullying at Work and Work-Related Stress], pp. 139–63 in W. Herremans (ed.) De arbeidsmarkt in Vlaanderen. Verslagboek Arbeidsmarktonderzoekersdag 2003. Leuven: Steunpunt Werkgelegenheid, Arbeid en Vorming.

Tversky, A. and D. Kahneman (1992) ‘Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty’, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 5(4): 297–323.

Vartia, M. (1996) ‘The Sources of Bullying: Psychological Work Environment and Organizational Climate’, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 5(2): 203–14.

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