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Why you need to avoid the office bully

ASU management professor studies why employees follow the office bully.
'Cult of personality' in the office bad for new employees, ASU professor finds.
July 5, 2016

ASU professor's research on personal identification in the workplace finds a tricky power dynamic

Office relationships are important. When new employees come on board, the boss wants them to identify with co-workers so they form a strong team.

But new research by an Arizona State University professor has found that personal identification in the office isn’t always positive.

Sometimes a new person, casting about for validation, can identify with someone who wields power: the office bully, according to Blake Ashforth, a professor of management who holds the Horace Steele Arizona Heritage chair in the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU.

“The bullies very often have an entourage,” he said. “They command that kind of attention precisely because they have that power. So some people throw their lot in with the bully because it gives them vicariously a sense of power in the playground.”

Ashforth’s theory paper, which he co-authored with two othersHis co-authors were Beth Schinoff, a doctoral student at ASU, and Kristie Rogers, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas who earned her doctorate at ASU., was published recently in the Academy of Management Review. The team reviewed hundreds of studies in compiling their research.

Ashforth has done a lot of research on identification, which he describes as a sense of “oneness.” When people identify with an organization, they are more likely to buy into its mission and goals. This paper looked at personal identification, among people.

“What was cool for us is that almost all the research on identity treats it as a very positive thing,” he said.

“But what we found is that it kind of depends. You can identify for the wrong reasons, and in doing so, borrow the wrong attributes from the person you identify with.”

ASU professor Blake Ashforth
Blake Ashforth, a professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business, pored over hundreds of studies with his team in researching personal identification in the workplace. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


Ashforth and his colleagues found three ways that people identify with others in an organization, two of which are positive.

“If you feel secure and go into an organization and see people doing stuff that you think is cool, you’ll want to extend yourself. You think, ‘What are they doing that I can learn?’ ” he said, describing “opportunity-focused identification.” Then there’s “closeness focused,” which basically is friendship.

“When you have a positive relationship with a co-worker, you like that person, and you borrow bits of each other, you have a richer set of skills and outlook on life,” Ashforth said.

But negative identification can come when an employee feels a threat.

“If you’re a newcomer to the work setting, you feel inherently uncertain because you don’t know the routines and relationships — you’re casting about for a role model,” he said. Longtime employees can be threatened by new procedures, rules or management. 

Threatened people then glom onto those who are perceived as having power.

“You get ‘cults of personality,’ where you have a person who is typically kind of self-serving and narcissistic, but they build this entourage of people who become like-minded and quite often destructive,” Ashforth said.

He said one example is Michael Milken, a former Wall Street financier who helped create “junk bonds,” was indicted for fraud and spent two years in prison.

“He attracted a bunch of like-minded acolytes who did these nefarious things together. They kind of validated each other’s view of why that was a decent thing to do.”

The message for managers is that they should create a work environment that is open and threat-free.

“The way that’s done is by fostering a sense of psychological safety,” said Ashforth, who is intrigued by the notion of negative identification and may study it further.

“A person senses that it’s OK to make mistakes, ask stupid questions and to reveal their idiosyncrasies. A manager who models tolerance of mistakes and encourages honest discourse creates the sense that it’s OK to be who you are and, more importantly, to make mistakes, experiment and fail.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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Browse some of the ASU summer camp fun with our photo gallery.
July 7, 2016

From science and sports to cooking and the arts, camps open up new worlds of learning for schoolkids from around the state

The academic pace slows a bit in the summertime at Arizona State University, but the energy level stays high as thousands of young people come to campus for camp.

Middle schoolers sleep in the residence halls, little kids hit golf balls at Karsten Golf Course and teenagers on the brink of life decisions can take college-level courses, learning to start businesses, create smartphone applications and become published authors.

This summer, nearly 4,500 young people will attend more than 30 summer programs at the Polytechnic, Downtown Phoenix, West and Tempe campuses. It's part of ASU's mission to serve its surrounding communities and expand access to education.

Some of the camps are designed to inspire teens who might not see college in their futures. The Fleischer Scholars, Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute and Hunnicutt Future Educators Academy, among others, bring high school students to ASU to not only visualize themselves on campus, but also to learn leadership skills and find personal insight.

“We give them an opportunity to be here overnight, and we expose them to college life and they say ‘Wow, I can picture myself here,’ ” said Connie Pangrazi, the assistant dean of academics at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, which sponsors the Hunnicutt camp.

Some camps focus on the academic experience. The 500 Barrett Summer Scholars draw high-achieving seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders who compete for a spot in the program, where they take electives in journalism, nursing, sustainability and other subjects. Other sessions teach Chinese, digital culture, video games, archeology, writing, accounting, math and art.

ASU offers several sports camps for kids, who can use the university’s top-notch facilities, and children with special needs can attend sessions run by expert faculty and staff members.

One of the best parts of the camp experience for older teens is the chance to interact with current ASU students who are peer mentors. The college students talk about how they paid for college, decided on a major and dealt with loneliness.

Samuel De La Ossa, a sophomore majoring in business communications, was the lead mentor in the Fleischer Scholars camp, sponsored by the W. P. Carey School of Business. He had been a Fleischer Scholar himself when he was in high school.

“The biggest thing I want them to take away is that they have a friend. This is a Fleischer family,” said De La Ossa. “It works. We’re able to break through to these juniors and make sure they’re not nervous and give them the resources they need.”

Klain Benally, an American Indian studies major and a Navajo, was a peer mentor at the Inspire Academy camp for Native American teenagers. He said that Native American youth have many cultural and social hurdles to overcome when transitioning from high school to college.

“There is a culture shock, no doubt about it,” Benally said. “One of our goals is to teach students about college, the steps they need to take, and how to connect with one another once they are here.”

Explore some of the many camps on offer at ASU this summer in the gallery below.


Top photo: Students examine the parts of a Madagascar Periwinkle at the Barrett Summer Scholars program on June 27. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now