Workplace bullying as sensemaking: an analysis of target and actor perspectives on initial hostile interactions

Katerina Zabrodska, Constance Ellwood, Sara Zaeemdar, Jiri Mudrak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


This study explores the micro-level processes sustaining hostile workplace behaviour at the level of interactions between targets and actors. Drawing on Weick's [1995. Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage] sensemaking theory, the study examined how targets and actors of workplace bullying made sense of each other's behaviours during first occasions of hostility. An analysis of collective biography stories of hostility in academia showed that targets experienced destabilisation of identity, positioned actors as arbiters of adequacy, and engaged in self-undermining. Actors' stories revealed not only moral condemnation of targets, failure to recognise the injury caused, but also precarious emotions, which could have subverted harmful behaviours. Based on these findings, the authors argue that understanding target and actor sensemaking is vital since it appears to contribute to power differentials between the parties from the very onset of hostility, thus allowing it to escalate. The implications for the development of a sensemaking approach to workplace bullying and organisational intervention are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)136-157
Number of pages22
JournalCulture and Organization
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 14 Mar 2016


  • workplace bullying
  • workplace hostility
  • sensemaking
  • target
  • actor
  • collective biography
  • stories


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