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What Swifties Have to Teach Us About Shutting Workplace Bullies Down

How bystanders can become upstanders and stop bullies in their tracks.

Key points

  • Workplace bullying is a communal act, not an individual problem.
  • When bystanders become upstanders, they have the power to shut down the bullying cycle.
  • Community builders can use specific strategies to stop bullies in their tracks.
Source: Haley Powers / Unsplash
Source: Haley Powers / Unsplash

I paired my early morning reading ritual, which included the NYT’s article "Taylor Swift Has Given Fans a Lot. Is It Finally Too Much?" with a ho-hum disagreement and a flick to the next screen. Later that evening, I spotted the posting on Instagram, and my research brain activated, fascinated to see strategies community builders can use to push back on bullies and stop the cycle, magically transforming from bystanders to upstanders.

Full disclosure: I am a Swiftie.

Fuller disclosure: I’m 50, not 15.

I am also a college professor and a workplace bullying researcher, and I serve on the executive board of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition. Workplace bullying is the intentional act of denigrating a person’s character through gossip, manipulation, sabotage, gaslighting, and ostracization in an effort to revoke her community belonging.

Over the last five years, I have collected the stories of more than 200 survivors of workplace bullying across 35 states, 10 countries, and 36 industries, most of whom ultimately lost their jobs as a result of the abuse and suffered significant health consequences including heart palpitations, gastrointestinal issues, migraines, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and in the most tragic of circumstances committed suicide. Though each story is unique, the players in the bullying cycle are recurring, and the trajectory is predictable. I named them as follows.

The Players

There is the Dragon, drenched in insecurities who recruits Shapeshifters to carry out his destructive directives. Together they form a closed circle, governed by strict group norms where noncompliance leads to excommunication. The target, a direct threat to the Dragon’s status quo mediocrity, is the Creative, a naturally curious, internally motivated, cross-collaborator and content expert who shakes tradition and recalibrates possibilities. Sitting on the sidelines, are the Community Builders, at times willowy in their ways, who either comply with the Dragon’s narrative to avoid being targeted next or speak up for justice, a courageous gesture that places them on the firing range but also has the power to curtail the bullying cycle, I conceptualize as a six-act play.

The Play

Act I is "Target Identification," in which the Dragon spots a Creative he perceives threatens his reign. Act II is "Jealousy and Case Building," where the Dragon cozies up to the Creative, pretending to be friends and searches for disclosures to later use against her in battle. Act III is "The Precipitating Event," such as the Creative earning an accolade or promotion, and though this is not the cause of the bullying, it is used as a catalyst to rally the troops. In Act IV, "The Underground Battle" commences, and the Dragon visits the higher-ups and human resources to trickle poison couched as care and command the Shapeshifters to instigate a gossip campaign, further toxifying the wells. Due to the Creative’s benevolent worldview, she is unlikely to know she is at war until Act V, "Escalating Attacks and Mobbing." Now the masks come off, the attacks are public and vicious, and she is fully ostracized, even by her most trusted colleagues. Devastated by the fallout, the Creative enters Act VI, "Resignation and Cover-Up," where she is officially excommunicated from her community while the Dragon hides the carnage and offers a high five to the Shapeshifters for a job well done.

The Power of Community Builders

Community Builders, however, have the power to serve as stopgaps, calling intermission on the play and pressuring Dragons to end production, for bullying is a communal act, not an individual move. Without Shapeshifters carrying the swords and complicit Community Builders pretending not to witness the assaults, the mob falls dead. This script flips most often occurs, not because the Dragon is reprimanded, for higher-ups rarely have the stomach for confrontation, but when Community Builders adopt courage over complicity and speak truth to injustice, whispering quietly and then building to a yell, “That’s not how we treat people in this community.” With that proclamation, the spell is broken, the curtain falls, and the Dragon moves on to his next victim.

So how can community builders respond to bullies attempting to sully the creative’s shine? The comments on the New York Times piece exemplify five effective strategies community builders can use to shift from bystanders to upstanders.

1. The rebuttal, offering the counter-narrative

@Juliafox: Hmm I actually can’t get enough lol I love @taylorswift

At work, this may look like:

“She thinks she is too good to collaborate with anyone”

“That’s not my experience. I find her very collaborative.”

2. The facts, disputing loose accusations with hard data

@silbaerundgold: Taylor Swift's 'THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT' aiming for #1 debut on the Billboard 200 with 2.3MILLION+ units first week -“The Tortured Poets Department” becomes the fastest album in history to reach 700 million streams on Spotify, surpassing “Midnights”.…….We have NY Times fatigue.

At work, this may look like:

”He got that promotion because he kissed up to the boss.”

”He got the promotion because he closed 30 percent more cases than anyone in our office.”

3. The explanation, making the logical argument

@connorrcoleman: The way a musician's job is to put out music and to perform said music—we can critique the music, but the media circus around her is the problem. Things like this are part of the contribution to that issue. Because it's not Taylor Swift fatigue, it's Taylor Swift think-piece fatigue... so it's you! Hi! You're the problem it's you!!

At work, this may look like:

“The new guy sucks and is making this place miserable.”

”He was hired because we are struggling. We just lost our top three employees to the competition. Give him a chance or none of us will have one.”

4. The script flip, highlighting the hypocrisy of it all with a little humor

@becca10smith “The Tortured Poets Society” 😂 didn’t you just release an article saying Taylor needs an editor? YIKES

At work, this may look like:

“She got the award because she is sleeping with the boss.”

”Didn’t you get the award last year? I didn’t know he was your type.”

5. The drop mic, shutting the conversation down with vulnerable truths

@h0llyarmstr0ng: This is thinly veiled jealousy, hatred, and toxicity masking as a critique. ‘Taylor Swift Fatigue’ is a misogynistic label at the core of an overexposure narrative that is forced on every single woman in the public eye. She’s creating art. She’s releasing art. Expecting her to siphon her success to make it more palatable for you is absolute insanity. Her true fans love and support her—whatever and however much she decides to do. No one is forcing anyone to listen, watch, engage, or write ludicrous, hollow critiques for click bait. Go find less.

At work, this may look like:

“Our new boss is a raging b*tch.”

”This division has been toxic for years, and she was hired to clean up the mess. She is the first administrator who took the time to ask my opinion and get to know me. The people complaining the loudest are the ones causing the majority of the problems. Being a change-maker makes you a target. I appreciate her kindness and creativity, and she has my full support.”

Unlike Taylor Swift, most targets of workplace bullying don’t have an enthusiastic chorus behind them knocking back the naysayers, yet community builders have the power to morph from complicit contributors to courageous confrontors, shutting the attacks down. To stand on the precipice of the bullying cycle and say “stop” is risky business, jeopardizing one’s own belongings, for "old habits die screaming," but they do eventually die. It’s time to “push the reset button, we're becoming something new" at work.


Matt Stevens and Shivani Gonzalez. Taylor Swift Has Given Fans a Lot. Is It Finally Too Much? New York Times. April 22, 2024.

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