Chaos and Complexity Theory Applied to Bullying at Work

By Nicole M. Amos

Chaos and complexity theory enables researchers to study complex human systems (Warren, Franklin, & Streeter, 1998). This theory seeks to understand systems that are not always linear. Relationships and interactions between people are not linear because there is feedback involved and feedback influences a situation in unpredictable and recursive ways (Warren et al., 1998).


Chaos and complexity theory also applies to people because of the feedback involved in relationships and interactions. “A person adapts to new knowledge from his or her environment to match his or her personal meanings” (Warren et al., 1998, p. 361). It logically follows then that if the environment can change a person, a person can change the environment. Since the environment and people can change each other, “a recursive feedback loop is established” (Warren et al., 1998, p. 361). Small changes become larger as the recursive feedback loop continues. For example, when a manager regularly yells at employees and berates them for their work performance rather than providing coaching and a supportive environment, those employees learn to manage in the same manner. When those employees progress through their careers and eventually become managers themselves, they might manage the way they learned by example, yelling at and berating team members. This negative cycle continues as the recursive feedback loop endures.


Also, individual people make up the larger system. As individuals experience a recursive feedback loop, a global system is established. According to complexity theory, those recursive feedback loops build on themselves and create change from within systems (Warren et al., 1998). Just as an aggressive management approach can be perpetuated by setting negative examples, the reverse can happen. If employees, witnesses to workplace bullying, managers, and Human Resource professionals refuse to accept this bullying behavior, a new standard for acceptable behavior can be set. For example, if an employee chooses not to repeat the behavior of an aggressive manager, or if a Human Resource professional intervenes and does not allow aggressive behavior to continue unchecked, the cycle of managing with a bullying approach can be broken.

Some important takeaways are:

  • Change can happen quickly and be long-lasting

  • Small efforts can lead to major changes

  • Change, once started, can gain momentum (Warren et al., 1998).



Bullying, a systemic issue that can be changed from within the global system, is an example of a complex issue. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as “repeated harmful abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse” (Workplace Bullying Institute, 2017). According to the most recent WBI survey, 2017 U.S. Workplace Bullying, 63% of people are aware that workplace bullying occurs. The survey also revealed “19% of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work [and] another 19% have witnessed it” (Namie, 2017, p. 3). Respondents reported that 61% of workplace bullies are bosses, 71% of employer reactions are harmful to targets of bullying, and only 23% of employers help the targets of bullying (Namie, 2017).


Bullying is an example of a recursive feedback loop. Individuals bullying other individuals establishes an environment in which it is accepted. The more it is accepted, the more it occurs. The good news is that the opposite can happen. If individuals stand up to bullying it will establish a new environment where bullying is not accepted. Small changes form the recursive feedback loop and build momentum to create change from within the system.


What Career Practitioners Need to Know and Apply

Employees and employers can start small changes today that will help stop bullying in the workplace, such as providing workplace bullying training, reporting bullying to Human Resources, and supporting victims by backing up their statements. Those actions will create a recursive feedback loop and develop momentum in a positive direction. The recursive feedback loop will in turn influence the environment, which will influence more people in the workplace. Career practitioners may be able to help employees and employers implement some of the following in order to make a difference in the workplace:

  1. Report it. You are not alone and being the target of bullying is not your fault. Report the bullying to your organization’s Human Resource department and visit www.workplacebullying.org for help.
  2. Stand up for someone being bullied. Don’t be a silent witness. Offer to provide a statement of what you witnessed to your organization’s Human Resource Department.
  3. Talk about the reality of workplace bullying to increase awareness. Offer to provide personal accounts in a workplace bullying training session or even help deliver a training session.
  4. Get involved with the Healthy Workplace Bill initiative. Some ways you can do this are to write to your elected official, contact your State Representative, become a Citizen Lobbyist, become a State Coordinator, and endorse the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (http://www.healthyworkplacebill.org/volunteer.php).
  5. Ask your organization’s Human Resource department to participate in Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week held in October. Distribute flyers and offer training to increase awareness and normalize the conversation about workplace bullying (http://www.workplacebullying.org/freedom-week/).


Start a Movement Against Workplace Bullying

Chaos and complexity theory helps explain how environments impact the people in them, and people also influence change in their environment. Employees and employers can take advantage of this this by implementing small changes that will make bullying unacceptable in the work environment. These small changes will start a movement that can grow and influence the global system.


As Gandhi stated (as cited in Lorrance, 2012), “We but mirror the world.  All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body.  If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do” (Gandhi’s Words section, para. 2).



Lorrance, A. (2012). Who Said “Be the Change?”. Retrieved from ConsciousnessWork: http://www.consciousnesswork.com/who_said_be_the_change.htm

Namie, G. (2017). 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. Workplace Bullying Institute.

Warren, K., Franklin, C., & Streeter, C. L. (1998). New directions in systems theory: Chaos and complexity. Social Work, 43(4), 357-372.

Workplace Bullying Institute. (2017). 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey Infographic. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/multi/img/2017/Infographic-2017.png


Nicole AmosNicole Amos' background is in management, training, and employee development (specializing in the development of managers). She joined Johnson & Wales University after 16 years in corporate roles and now teaches in the management program full time while pursuing a PhD in Organizational Leadership. She is very passionate about helping managers create and support a motivating work environment that encourages high performance work teams and employee satisfaction. She also loves working with students while they develop their interests in management and HR. She can be reached at nicole.amos@jwu.edu

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