Dorothy Suskind Ph.D.

The Pain of Ostracization: The Bully’s Silent Weapon

Top five things you need to know about being excluded at work..

Posted  July 6, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

 Photo by Keenan Constance on Unsplash

# 1. What Does Ostracization Look Like?

Ostracization, or the exclusion of a person by an individual or group, is a common tactic of workplace bullies. It serves as a silent weapon, difficult to name, hard to call out, and detrimental to the target’s mental health and ability to meet the demands at work. Feelings of rejection are strong and quickly triggered, as demonstrated in a research study using Cyberball, a computer-generated game of ball toss in which the target is suddenly excluded from play.

The ostracization cycle, according to Kipling Williams, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Purdue University and foremost expert in the field, follows a three-stage process referred to as the Need Threat Temporal Model. It begins with the Reflexive stage in which the target’s fundamental needs of belonging, self-esteem , control, and a meaningful existence are threatened. The Reflective or coping stage is next, where the target assesses the damage and may attempt to re-establish the connection by complying with group norms or become angered by the abuse and seek retaliation. If the exclusion is prolonged, the target enters the Resignation stage, where he often experiences feelings of unworthiness, hopelessness, and depression .

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

#2. Why Do Workplace Bullies Use Ostracization as a Weapon?

Hard to prove, easy to join in on, and devastating in impact, ostracization is a favorite tactic of workplace aggressors. According to Williams, "being excluded or ostracized is an invisible form of bullying that doesn't leave bruises, and therefore we often underestimate its impact." Social exclusion attacks the target’s sense of belonging, breaks down her social network , and prevents the flow of information necessary for successfully completing projects and tasks. To make it even more appealing to the workplace bully, research shows that ostracization is contagious. The fear of social exclusion is so salient, most bystanders will adopt the behavior of the aggressor, ensuring their “in-group” membership, as opposed to risking possible retaliation for questioning group norms. Once a target is identified for exclusion, mass mobbing may follow, intensifying the pain and scope of the ostracization.

Photo by Antoine Plüss on Unsplash

# 3. Why Does Ostracization Hurt So Much?

According to Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, the pain of ostracization appears to be evolutionary. We are social creatures by nature. In the wild, belonging to a group is necessary for survival, and traveling alone leaves us susceptible to injury and death. The pain of ostracization may be an evolutionary tool to warn us we are in danger.

Victims of ostracization often say the exclusion hurts, an apt description it turns out according to Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams whose research shows that isolation activates the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula, the same areas of the brain that light up as a result of physical pain. They surmise “social pain is analogous in its neurocognitive function to physical pain, alerting us when we have sustained injury to our social connections, allowing restorative measures to be taken.”

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#4. How Does Ostracization Promote Conformity , Stifle Creativity , and Discourage Whistleblowing?

Employees’ attitudes and actions help to form the prevailing workplace culture and create rules for belonging. Parks and Stone found that cultures with strict norms, who discourage dissent, will sometimes outcast individuals who are high-performing and overly altruistic in action. They hypothesize such employees raise the bar too high, surpassing work production and creativity norms, and make some colleagues feel poorly about themselves for not being better stewards of others. To reestablish group membership, the high performer is pressured to play small or resign, perpetuating a stifling and sometimes toxic workplace culture.

Cialdini (2005), a professor at Arizona State University, found we often underestimate the intense influence of social dynamics. When poor behavior is pervasive in an organization, in regards to professional interactions and ethical decision making , employees are more likely to conform. Who risks becoming an outcast in the name of speaking out against injustice? Kenny (2019), in her new book Whistleblowing: Toward a New Theory , published by Harvard University Press, found that employees who value justice and fairness over loyalty and conformity tend to be the ones who report abuse and violations of laws and ethics .

Whistleblowing, according to Alford’s seminal work, has significant consequences, including retaliatory isolation in the form of being left out of meetings, cut off from technology, and physically isolated. Though a whistleblower is often celebrated in the larger community for her courage, her bravery may be punished at work, as the bully paints her as a deviant and creates chaos to deflect the issues she called out. Miceli, Near, Rehg, and van Scotter found ostracizing bold voices also serve as a warning to other employees who may seek transparency in decision making and justice for wrongdoing. The impact of isolation on whistleblowers is significant, causing previously healthy people to experience depression, anxiety , sleep disturbance, and fear.

#5. What Tools Are Available to Help Targets Cope With Ostracization?

Photo by Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash

Work often provides a circle of social support that extends past the office walls. When a workplace bully ostracizes a target and pressures others to join in on the exclusion, the target may become flooded with feelings of rejection. To regain footing and find soothing and support, research shows there are several places to turn to for comfort.

bullying a case study in ostracism

Employees who maintain full lives outside of the office and nurture relationships across diverse friend groups form a type of buffer against the impact of ostracization. Family members and groups formed around activities such as hobbies, exercising, and religious formation help to make targets feel less isolated. When victims’ social circles at work cut them out, their outside networks help them to meet their fundamental needs.

Molet, Macquet, Lefebvre, and Williams found mindfulness practice to be a useful strategy for mitigating the pain of ostracization. Through breathing exercises, targets learn how to focus on the now instead of ruminating on the painful feelings of being excluded at work.

Derrick, Gabriel, and Hugenberg suggest social surrogates, or symbolic bonds that provide a psychological rather than physical connection, can also help to lessen the pain of ostracization. Social surrogates fall into one of three categories. There is the Parasocial, in which we form a one-way connection to people we do not actually know but who bring us happiness , like watching a favorite actress in a movie or enjoying a concert by a beloved musician. Next, there is the Social World, in which we find escape and calm by transporting to another universe through books and television, such as, situating ourselves in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. Lastly, there are Reminders of Others, where we use pictures, home videos, mementos, and letters to connect to the people we love and who love us back.

Social surrogates have also been shown to benefit trauma victims, who seek comfort from activities and rituals, instead of opening themselves up to reciprocal human relationships that may put them at risk for re-traumatization.

Though some assume leaning on social surrogates is a sign of maladaptation and deficiency in personality , recent research indicates that social surrogates are correlated with the development of empathy , self-esteem, and other prosocial characteristics of healthy human development.

In summary, ostracization hurts, spreads, and has a long-lasting impact on the victim. Exclusionary practices may be used to enforce toxic group norms and discourage employees from speaking out against ethical violations and injustices. Ostracization, at its core, strips individuals of their fundamental needs of belonging, self-esteem, control, and a search for a meaningful existence. Work shouldn’t be painful.

Copyright (2020). Dorothy Courtney Suskind, Ph.D.

Alford, C. F. (2001). Whistleblowers: Broken lives and organizational power. New York: Cornell University Press.

Cialdini, R. B. (2005). Basic social influence is underestimated. Psychological Inquiry, 16(4), 158–161.

Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 352–362.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? an fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290–292.

Gabriel, S., Read, J. P., Young, A. F., Bachrach, R. L., & Troisi, J. D. (2017). Social surrogate use in those exposed to trauma: I get by with a little help from my (fictional) friends. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 36(1), 41–63.

Kenny, K. (2019). Whistleblowing: Toward a new theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Miceli, M. P., Near, J. P., Rehg, M. T., & van Scotter, J. R. (2012). Predicting employee reactions to perceived organizational wrongdoing: Demoralization, justice, proactive personality, and whistle-blowing. Human Relations, 65(8), 923–954.

Molet, M., Macquet, B., Lefebvre, O., & Williams, K. D. (2013). A focused attention intervention for coping with ostracism. Consciousness & Cognition, 22(4).

Parks, C. D., & Stone, A. B. (2010). The desire to expel unselfish members from the group. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(2), 303–310.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don't get ulcers. New York: Times Books.

Williams, K. D., Cheung, C. K. T., & Choi, W. (2000). CyberOstracism: Effects of being ignored over the Internet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 748-762.

Williams, K. D., & Jarvis, B. (2006). Cyberball: a program for use in research on interpersonal ostracism and acceptance. Behavior Research Methods, 38(1).

Williams, K.D. (2009). Ostracism: A temporal need-threat model. In Zadro, L., & Williams, K. D., & Nida, S. A. (2011). Ostracism: Consequences and coping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 71–75.

Williams, K. D., & Nida, S. A. (Eds.). (2017). Ostracism, exclusion, and rejection (First, Series Frontiers of social psychology). New York: Routledge.

Dorothy Suskind Ph.D.

Dorothy Suskind, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Education and Counseling Department at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. Her research focuses on workplace bullying.

bullying a case study in ostracism

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Bullying: A Case Study in Ostracism from Facing History

Facing History and Ourselves recently launched their new online resource, Bullying: A Case Study in Ostracism . Based on their other initiatives, including their core curriculum, I knew it would be good but it exceeded all my expectations. Before I get into why you’ll thank me for bringing this to your attention, especially if you’re a parent (of any age child), principal, teacher, counselor or mentor, it might be helpful to understand Facing History’s mission and why they’re such a strong resource as a whole:

The Ostracism Case Study evolved as part of research conducted by Harvard and Facing History and Ourselves and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. At it’s core, are riveting interviews with girls regarding a simple problem that began among 7th grade friends that escalated into a complicated and serious ostracism issue. (I urge you to listen to the overview of the study . Fascinating.)

A Guided Tour Through The Minds of Middle School Girls

It’s also worth the time to listen to the transcripts of the girls’ interviews . Like me, you may not be able to stop thinking about these word for word transcripts from girls who are only 12 to 14 years old. This is the best tool I’ve come across to help adults understand the world and relationships of middle school girls. I’m going to urge the schools that I work with to consider using this online and free curriculum and to include it as part of their professional development but I think it’s helpful for parents at home, too. The discussion questions are simple but extremely thought-provoking and make a great platform for discussion for girls (and probably boys, too) during their middle through high school years.

An Important String in the Tangled Ball of Bullying The girls’ descriptions of what happened to cause the complete ostracism of one of the once popular girls — to the point that she was contemplating suicide — reminded me of a recent situation I came across involving 7th and 8th grade girls ignited by Facebook. Both situations involved feelings about a boy, the “pack mentality,” cliques, self esteem, miscommunication, harshness, and cluelessness. They both escalated very quickly and by the time adults were brought in, the situation was so muddy, that it was difficult to actually help. In fact, the involvement of some of the adults at that point actually hurt the situation.

This curriculum would have been useful at the time. Facing History and Ourselves has expertly brought the global history lesson of the devastating affects of ostracism home. Thank you, Facing History .

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bullying a case study in ostracism

Workplace Ostracism: Tackling the silent office bully

by @dmin2019 | Apr 27, 2020 | Category , Ostracism/bullying , Working environment | 12 comments

workplace ostracism - tackling the silent office bully (Medium)


Cast your minds back to your days as a child. Lunchtime has arrived and you merrily make your way out into the playground (skipping rope in hand) to play with your friends. You see them over in the far corner, chatting and laughing away, so make your way over. Only, when you arrive, the conversation stops. There is a coldness in the air, but you bravely ask them what they were talking about. “ Nothing important ” says one of the children. Silence again. “ Anyone fancy jumping rope? ” you ask more timidly. Silence. There is a clear sense that you are not welcome. So, awkwardly, you walk away: confused , sad and alone .

If only that type of behaviour stopped in the playground.

Unfortunately, ostracism (also referred to as: social isolation, abandonment, social death, being shunned, social exclusion, and “being out of the loop”) is as common a phenomenon in the workplace as it is in the school yard. So much so, that it is recognised and identified, more often than not, as a form of bullying / harassment under most corporate anti-bullying policies.

We all claim to be against bullying, and yet I still hear accounts from clients and friends who have suffered from social exclusion at work and the impact that this has had on their emotional, physical and mental health. In fact, I hear more complaints about ostracism than I do harassment.

“So why is this toxic behaviour still so prevalent in the business world? And why is it so difficult to do anything about it?”

What is workplace ostracism?

bullying a case study in ostracism

Workplace ostracism occurs when: “ an individual or a group [the ostraciser] neglects to take actions that engage another organisational member [the victim] when it would be customary or appropriate to do so ”.

Unlike harassment which requires direct engagement between the bully and the victim (e.g. harming, demeaning, belittling, causing personal humiliation), the primary objective of the ostraciser is to disengage with the victim; to disconnect , isolate and not involve .

Some examples are as follows:

This omission of behaviour is what makes ostracism such a difficult phenomenon to address. First, there is a dearth of physical evidence of the behaviour. And, secondly, finding an excuse for such behaviour is easy:

You get the picture!

It is the indirect nature of the treatment, and the ease with which the perpetrator can justify their behaviour, which inhibits employees reporting the treatment.

bullying a case study in ostracism

For someone who thrives off connection and has an intrinsic need to please people, being excluded was one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with. I’ve experienced ostracism twice in my career. The first from a superior. The second from a peer group. For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on the first instance and describe some of the behaviour which I experienced.

Following a fun and busy weekend, I walked into the office on the Monday to be greeted with silence from my superior. I hadn’t really noticed it at first, but soon I realised that they were engaging with everyone else in the office except for me. Every time I tried to speak to them, eye contact was avoided, or a meeting magically appeared that they would need to attend.

Eventually, after three days of silence, I had the courage to ask for a meeting to discuss the situation. After some resistance, the meeting was held which I thought resolved the issue. But, a few days later, the behaviour re-started just in other forms: Barbeques were held to which I was no longer invited; friendships were formed with my closest friends in the office; my opinion was no longer sought; coffee breaks were held without me. I felt like a pariah!

I tried to work harder to regain favour. I tried to ignore it. I tried speaking to my friends outside of the office to try to understand what I’d done to deserve this punishment.

The situation continued on and off for six months. I spoke informally to the HR team (who I trusted), but every time I tried to describe the behaviour and the impact it was having on me, I felt so pathetic. The things I was complaining about sounded so childish. I was upset because I wasn’t invited to a party. I was hurt because my opinion was never asked for anymore. I was sad because they wouldn’t talk to me.

But it was this daily occurrence of repeated exclusion that took its toll. I felt like I was walking on eggshells every time I walked into the office. It was a consistent reminder that I wasn’t wanted, I wasn’t liked and I didn’t belong.

Why is ostracism so damaging?

bullying a case study in ostracism

Every human being has a fundamental need for connection. That need to belong – to have a sense that one is valued and accepted by others – may be the most fundamental social need humans have. When you deprive someone of that greater social need, it can have a knock-on effect on their health, their levels of stress and their emotional and psychological well-being.

And yet still, despite the effects being more damaging than harassment, ostracism is still seen as less reprehensible (and therefore less serious) than negative engagement.

Why do people resort to ostracism?

bullying a case study in ostracism

The focus of this article is punitive ostracism where an individual or group intentionally exclude an individual. It should be noted that ostracism (exclusion) is not always initiated with bad intent. For example, an individual may be excluded from a meeting because they do not have the requisite authority to be invited (role-prescribed ostracism). An individual may ignore someone because they are genuinely preoccupied with something else (not ostracism).

Research indicates that ostracism is used to manage perceived threats to an individual’s or a group’s well-being.

Consider the situations where you have experienced an individual being shunned in the workplace. How were they perceived to threaten the ostracizer?

Whatever the motivation, ostracism sought to remove power from that individual (the perceived threat) so that the ostracizer could retain some semblance of control.

So, what can you do if you find yourself being ostracized?

bullying a case study in ostracism

Examine the situation – Can you identify the reasons why you think you may be being excluded? E.g. do you come across as quite negative? Can you be quite over-bearing in meetings? This is not a justification for the ostracism, but consider whether there is anything that you can do to try and improve the situation.

bullying a case study in ostracism

Look after yourself – If the exclusion continues, it will affect your mental, physical and emotional well-being. Whilst you struggle to work out your next steps, try to leave the ostracism in the office. The best thing you can do is keep yourself fit and healthy and happy outside of the office. Hang out with your friends, be with your family, exercise, stay positive. Find time to look after and care for yourself.

bullying a case study in ostracism

Keep a record of the behaviour – As we have discussed, proving ostracism is incredibly hard, but if you need to address this formally, having a record of repeated instances when you have experienced the behaviour will help.

bullying a case study in ostracism

Speak to someone you trust outside of the office – Given the impact that social exclusion has on our mental state, it is vital that you talk to someone about what you are experiencing. Whether that be a friend, a coach, a parent, a counsellor – choose someone who is objective, who you trust and who will provide the support you need.

bullying a case study in ostracism

Speak to Human Resources (HR) – If the behaviour continues, your first port of call is HR (assuming one exists). You can request that an informal conversation be held under the strictest of confidence. Explore your options. Review your anti-bullying and harassment policy. Understand how this will be handled and the possible outcomes. Consider whether you wish to address this on a formal level.

If you are currently experiencing ostracism in the workplace (whether directly or indirectly) and need someone to talk to, then why don’t you drop me a message and we can arrange a one-on-one coaching session.

Please don’t struggle alone.

bullying a case study in ostracism


O’Reilly, J., Robinson, S. L., Berdahl, J. L., & Banki, S. (2014). Is negative attention better than no attention? The comparative effects of ostracism and harassment at work. Organization Science

Wesselmann, Eric, Wirth, James, Pryor, John, Reeder, Glenn, Williams, Kipling (2013). When Do We Ostracize? Social Psychological and Personality Science

Gamian-Wilk, Malgorzata, Madeja-Bien, Kamila (2018). Ostracism in the Workplace


Michelle McGrew

I’m having the worst time at my job. It could be age related because the 2 i work with are mid 30s and I am 51. They know each other too. It’s in a school setting so I really have to remain professional. We should be more connected as a team but it never goes that way. It feels like a them and then there’s me setting. As the day goes on I become busy enough it doesn’t effect me so much. It’s the 1st 30 minutes that drives me insane. The greetings of hello to everyone but me. The ring leader will actually ignore me when I come in but when her friend comes in she will literally say loud enough “Good morning friend”. It’s just crazy. They get coffee together. They plan learning activities together and so on. Wondering if I should just find another job.


Hello, I’m sorry to hear that you are having a tough time at work at the moment. It often feels as though we have no other option than to leave sometimes, but it’s also a pretty drastic measure, and I’m wondering what other options are available for you to explore? If you’d like to have a chat, you’re welcome to book in a 30-minute discovery call:


hi to Michelle… did things get better in your school setting?

I’ve been through this treatment and the first time round it lead to very dark times. I’m sad to report that I got my dream opportunity but now have a group very similar to what you are having. they are all in their 20s and I’m nearly 40. they have no idea how lucky they have been to get their dream jobs at their age.

where as I’m lucky if anyone actually notices I’m alive… and its only my first few weeks in..


I am having the same experience, unfortunately I had to resign from a job I truly love at an elementary school.


I don’t know where you are located, but in the US we would NEVER advise an employee to report such a thing to HR. HR does not exist to protect employees; it exists to protect the company. If an employee did go to them with an issue like this, they could expect some very negative consequences.

Hi Joanna, Thank you for your valid comment. Please note, it’s not advice I’m giving – I’m merely putting forward some options. I think it really depends on each individual’s situation and their level of trust in the HR team. HR is there to address these issues – and for some situations it is the correct way to go; for others, it may not be. In my personal experience, there was one instance where I was comfortable going to HR to discuss the situation – when I had decided (having discussed with close friends and my therapist my options) to bring a formal complaint. I trusted the HR team and felt I had sufficient internal support to do this. In another situation, I had no HR team to go to because one didn’t exist. The partners who dealt with HR matters wouldn’t have dealt with the situation properly, so I looked at alternative ways to deal with the situation. So, in my view, it requires an individual to weight up the level of trust they have in the HR team and the results they are hoping to get from bringing a formal complaint versus not saying anything at all and looking for alternative ways to cope with the situation.


This is exactly my scenario at work. We have an anti bully program. Problem, is that it can be used against the worker. Team work throwing back at team one. I have been documenting the problems, but feel it is petty, when read. So I use have emails to refer to as well.


Hello thank you for the article. In my situation, it has been gradual. Some days it gets better and other days worse. Most of the co workers only really talk to me when they are not around the group. I do not fit in with my environment and had to report a few issues so I am pretty unpopular at work.

I really liked the article and its helpful advice. However, I do not think it is up to the individual to make their coworkers like them or think as to why they are being ostracised unless they did something very wrong.

Thank you for your comment. I’m glad that you found the article helpful. With regards to the point on the individual, my point is that we do need to create awareness around our own behaviour and consider whether or not we are contributing or causing a particular situation to transpire. For example, if Mr. X was always going around yelling at people when he was stressed, it may result in team members avoiding him (because they don’t like being yelled at / are scared of him). He may feel that he’s being ostracised, but actually, in that situation, it’s his poor ability to control his temper that is resulting in people avoiding him. That was my point on the individual. I hope that clarifies things.

Jan W

I too am going through a similar thing. I am 54 years old and am beginning to think the ostracism is age related. I have just left one work place after only a year of unbearable treatment where I was often completely ignored in the workplace, sometimes for a full ten hour shift whilst younger females and older (married) men spent the entire shift flirting with one another. I was frequently sent to sit in another area on my own, with some excuse or another, generally Covid.

I have just started a new job and the same thing seems to be happening. A younger woman was left in charge of organising the Christmas party, she has invited everybody but me. First I thought it might be because I am new but today realised people who started after me have also been invited. I have spent the best part of today being forced to listed to them all talk about the ‘Christmas night out’ whilst being completely ignored. I generally get on well with people at work, so this treatment is alien to me. I am friendly but quiet, I’m also very strong internally, so feel I just have to suck it up, however it’s really hurtful.

Mrs Kristine Braddock

I’m currently going through this too. I’m 51 and the WO offenders are in their 30’s, late 20’s. It seems to be a common theme in the comments here. For it occurred around time spent with clients where they noticed the obviousness of it. I felt so embarrassed as I have a very strong and professional relationship with them. I spoke or should say ended up crying to my manager about it on the phone, as it’s been escalating for a few months. I think it stems from something unprofessional I did 18 months ago on a work trip night out. But not anything I haven’t seen them demonstrate themselves. This makes me hesitant to take it further in case they disclose this. What to do?


Me too . Not in the the team Christmas photos or on the secret team Facebook page . Lucky if anyone even says hello , but usually they don’t unless it’s to criticise me . I have asd and am constantly having the mickey taken out of me and not in a nice way ( flapping of arms , being called a Ming etc. I’m 66 and too old for this stupidity

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bullying a case study in ostracism

Bullying and ostracism experiences in children with special health care needs


Objective: Bullying experiences are becoming increasingly common in children and can have devastating consequences. Ostracism threatens a child's need for self-esteem, sense of belonging, sense of control, and meaningful existence. Recent literature suggests that children with special health care needs may be at risk for these negative events and consequences. This study compares bullying and ostracism experiences in children with and without various special health care needs.

Methods: Participants aged 8 to 17 years completed questionnaires during a routine primary care or subspecialty clinic visit. Children with learning disabilities (N = 34), attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder (N = 100), autism spectrum disorders (N = 32), behavioral or mental health disorders (N = 33), and cystic fibrosis (CF, N = 22) were compared with 73 control children with no diagnosis on Reynolds' Bully-Victimization Scale scores and a 15-item pilot ostracism scale.

Results: Compared with the control group, children in the learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, and attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder groups exhibited significant victimization scores on the Bully-Victimization Scale, whereas the behavioral or mental health disorders group had increased mean victimization scores. The learning disabilities group also reported clinically significant bullying. The CF group did not report involvement as bullies or victims. All children with special health care needs groups had increased mean frequency of threats to basic needs related to ostracism, and children with attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders were at higher risk for ostracism experiences.

Conclusion: Children with special health care needs may be at higher risk for bullying, victimization, and ostracism. Further research is needed to explore this relationship, especially as it relates to child adjustment. Children with special health care needs should be asked about bullying and ostracism experiences and potential effects as part of mental health screening.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders*
  • Learning Disabilities*
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Psychological Tests
  • Social Behavior*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Reference Manager
  • Simple TEXT file

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bullying a case study in ostracism

  • Department of Public Administration, College of Public Administration, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China

Leadership ostracism widely exists in all types of organizations, yet specific study regarding this trend is limited. With this study, we explore the influencing mechanisms of leadership ostracism through case interview based on literature analysis and grounded theory. Results show that leadership ostracism is the integration of a triadic interaction process between subordinate performance, leadership characteristics, and organizational environment. Based on Padilla's destructive leadership toxic triangle model, we constructed a toxic triangle model of leadership ostracism. Through comparison, we found that these two triad models overlap in the areas of narcissism and power consciousness of supervisors, the self-concept of subordinates, and the management system of situational factors, indicating that leadership ostracism is itself a type of destructive leadership. In addition, the uniqueness, and differences in leadership ostracism are reflected in the model, including stereotypes, and results orientation of supervisors, political skills, job performance, and cognitive style of subordinates, the power distance, Chaxu climate, and organizational politics of the situational elements. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed in the research field that provides prospects for future orientation.


Workplace ostracism refers to “the extent to which an individual perceives that he or she is ignored, rejected or excluded by others at work” ( Ferris et al., 2008 ). Constructs for workplace ostracism are noted in collective experiences such as exclusion ( Pereira et al., 2013 ), social rejection ( Haldorai et al., 2020 ), organizational shunning ( Quade et al., 2018 ), and feeling “out of the loop” ( Robinson et al., 2013 ). Even in subtle forms, an ostracized individual may respond with physical chills, and psychological reactions, such as nervousness, and sadness ( Howard et al., 2019 ). To elucidate the potential sources and perpetrators of ostracism, Ferris et al. (2008) differentiate workplace ostracism into (1) leadership ostracism and (2) coworker ostracism. Leadership ostracism is a common phenomenon and primarily manifests as a form of authority exerting influence on promotions, rewards, and resource acquisition of subordinates; thus, its negative effects, and consequences are more serious than that of co-worker ostracism ( Hitlan and Noel, 2009 ). Leadership ostracism may lead to an increase in deviant, unethical, and/or counterproductive behaviors resulting in negative consequences on job performance and organizational outcomes ( Martinko et al., 2013 ; Chung, 2017 ; Sarwar et al., 2020 ). Given its effect, an increase in research on leadership ostracism has emerged exposing the dark side of negative leadership ( Jahanzeb et al., 2018 ; Kanwal et al., 2019 ; Zhao et al., 2019 ). Less clear, however, is when and why supervisors engage in leadership ostracism.

Understanding the antecedents of leadership ostracism is crucial; however, several antecedent factors have merged in the accumulated findings over the past decade ( Ferris et al., 2015 ). The predominant studies in leadership ostracism literature have focused on certain subsets of personality or supervisor–subordinate relationships while offering little insight into establishing a holistic antecedent framework ( Hitlan and Noel, 2009 ; Xu et al., 2015 ). For example, models to explore how a victim may trigger a situation where they are ostracized by a supervisor are built around the individual characteristics of the subordinate from the perspective of behavioral recipients ( Xue et al., 2020 ). Another stream of study on the perpetrators explores the intention of supervisors to ostracize and leadership styles under contextual stress ( Schyns and Schilling, 2013 ; Quade et al., 2018 ). In this paper, we follow a holistic perspective and construct a theoretical framework that integrates the victim, the perpetrator, and the contextual factors.

Given that there is no established framework available on leadership ostracism, a qualitative research method is more suitable to explore the antecedents ( Wilhelmy et al., 2016 ). First, through literature review, we conceptually define leadership ostracism and clarify what type of situation characterizes leadership ostracism for the victim. Next, by conducting interviews, we analyze practical cases collected in a field setting in which leadership ostracism occurred to identify key antecedents. Consistent with Padilla's toxic triangle model for destructive leadership, we then divided the results into factors (1) supervisor, (2) subordinate, and (3) organizational context. As a form of destructive leadership, leadership ostracism applies to “follower-targeted influence” that builds on leadership positions and contextual interactions ( Schyns and Schilling, 2013 ). In the current study, we extended the toxic triangle model on the antecedents of leadership ostracism from the supervisor, subordinate, and organizational context, and we discuss the principal personal and environmental predictors in these three domains. By testing a dynamic conceptual model of leadership ostracism, this study makes contributions to the leadership literature and offers theoretical and practical implications for improving organizational climate and employee well-being.

Theoretical Backgrounds

Leadership (supervision) ostracism is a subtle yet universal form of interpersonal mistreatment that employees perceive from supervisors, which includes neglect, rejection, and exclusion ( Ferris et al., 2008 ; Chen and Tu, 2017 ). From a victim-focused viewpoint, this mistreatment is a subjective experience and the perception of subordinates that suffer ostracism by someone in a position of authority. Affected by authority hierarchy, subordinates are “more astute at identifying ostracism from superiors” than other types of workplace ostracism, which can be attributed to their need for leadership support, approval, and advancement in job evaluation ( Zhao et al., 2019 ). Leadership ostracism includes both behavioral actions (e.g., excluding, rejecting), and relatively static inaction (e.g., ignoring, neglecting, shunning). However, leadership ostracism is principally more of a silence/emotional intimidation in the workplace that does not include either direct verbal or behavioral conflicts. Even though leadership ostracism is generally a low-intensity conflict, it frequently occurs in conjunction with other forms of destructive leadership, including incivility, tyranny, bullying, abusive supervision, and/or physical assault. Therefore, it is crucial that leadership ostracism be included in discussions on leadership. In terms of concept, connotation, and performance, leadership ostracism is included in destructive leadership, and destructive leadership is included in negative leadership (see Figure 1 ).

Figure 1 . Venn diagram of negative leadership, destructive leadership, and leadership ostracism.

The current study differentiates leadership ostracism by three aspects. First, behavioral motivation–leadership ostracism may be a strategy utilized to obtain higher job performance and increased organizational outcomes whereby supervisors exert a “bad” influence on subordinates whether the employee performs well or not ( Vidyarthi et al., 2014 ; Howard et al., 2019 ). Other types of destructive leadership, such as abusive supervision, may result from metamorphosis or dark personality of a supervisor and frequently target high-performance employees ( Tepper, 2007 ). Next, target influence differs in the workplace. Leadership ostracism is a type of silent intimidation manifest in leadership authority. Other destructive leadership behaviors commonly include a form of intense verbal or behavioral conflict, including negative behaviors directed at both subordinates (e.g., abuse, punching, and sexual assault) and the organization (e.g., deception, theft, and corruption) ( Einarsen et al., 2007 ). Lastly, the scope and frequency of occurrence confine to different boundaries. Leadership ostracism is a common phenomenon. Interpersonal relationships form kinds of Quanzi that indicate the closeness of a subordinate–supervisor relationship, thus forming the organizational Chaxu climate ( Chen and Dian, 2018 ). This elicits varied treatment of employees, while some subordinates in the Quanzi are always treated with preference. However, other destructive leadership behaviors occur only in certain circumstances, for example, when a leader is feeling depleted or when subordinates are considered a burden ( Byrne et al., 2014 ; Ferris et al., 2015 ).

We adapted Padilla's toxic triangle framework to explore the antecedents of leadership ostracism. The framework includes “a confluence of leaders, followers, and environmental factors” ( Padilla et al., 2007 ) that associate with personnel and contextual characteristics to fuel leadership ostracism. However, what leads to destructive leadership in the existing studies is limited to literature review; therefore, we discern a clear call for further empirical evidence. In the current study, we attempt to conduct a “new” toxic triangle model on the integrations of leadership ostracism by conducting in-depth interviews.


Sample and data collection.

Identifying and establishing antecedent frameworks for leadership ostracism is a somewhat new endeavor; therefore, we have taken a qualitative approach by conducting individual in-depth interviews from practical cases. Inductive case analysis is more intuitive, dynamic, and comprehensive ( Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007 ), and interview data can provide further insights into theoretical depth and breadth ( Kelley et al., 2003 ). In the current study, a semi-structured interview was conducted to unveil when and why supervisors engage in leadership ostracism in the workplace.

Before the study began, we generated a list of 87 Master of Public Administration (MPA) students from various professions who, based on daily contact, and knowledge, reported situations of distress, and rejection by their supervisors or had observed colleagues being ostracized. According to theoretical sampling methods in grounded theory, 20–40 participants would meet recommended sample sizes ( Hays et al., 2016 ); we, therefore, randomly selected 40 of the 87 participants and nine respondents declined. Next, we eliminated interference factors by applying selection criteria as follows: full-time, regular employee who had worked for more than half a year; recruitment, not appointment from the top; had frequent opportunities to work directly with leaders; undertook substantive work within the organization or held a specific position; not the subordinate of only leaders. During this stage, we excluded five individuals from our sample and an additional three individuals chose to discontinue due to personal reasons. Finally, we took 23 respondents as final samples based on the rule of “theoretical saturation” to assure that key points were common and not just “random occurrences” ( Waldeck et al., 2015 ; Heyler et al., 2016 ).

The interview guide is shown in Figure 2 . A priori framework specification for research questions served as a base for theory-building in the case study ( Eisenhardt, 1989 ). We contrasted the assumed and experienced practices from an individual-level perspective to identify the characteristics of leadership ostracism and examined how individuals became victims and experienced leadership ostracism. Taking Company A as an example, since the staff in the department had established long-term contact with our project, we were permitted to carry out preliminary testing on leadership ostracism. In our research, a framework that connected “post-positivist, constructionist, and interpretivist approaches” of grounded theory was applied to explore how leadership ostracism was formed ( Levers, 2013 ). On the one hand, we attempted to combine existing theoretical constructs with intuitive ideas of individuals on leadership ostracism to achieve a more accurate prediction of behavior ( Webster et al., 2008 ). In addition to the literature review, we conducted one-on-one interviews to understand what was perceived as leadership ostracism, we checked victim resource allocation and task assignment by reviewing work documents in collective work, and we personally observed the treatment of victims by their leaders in private and in public settings by participating in organizational programs. On the other hand, we learned about ostracism practices in the workplace through informal conversations with leaders, subordinates, and colleagues, whose feedback was primarily based on firsthand experience or daily observations. These data would complement our previous observations and formed the overall description of leadership ostracism and its antecedents.

Figure 2 . Guiding investigation framework.

The final research sample includes the following statistics: Gender = 10 males/13 females; Age of participants = 16 (25–30 years), 4 (31–40 years), 2 (under 25 years), and 1 (40+ years); Organization type=9 from public sector, three from state-owned sector, and 11 from private sector; Working experience = 87% with 1–5 years, and Work type = 91.3% are office juniors and mid-level office staff. Due to restrictions related to the working hours and job requirements of participants, the interviews were conducted by either one-on-one field interviews, telephone calls, or an online survey.

To create a relaxed conversational atmosphere, we began with light topics such as career development plans and expectations for ideal leaders. Then, we conducted interviews following the investigation framework (see Figure 2 ) in a semi-structured manner by a chief investigator and two assistants, which lasted 60 to 90 mi using audio and handwriting records. Respondents recalled critical incidents on leadership ostracism and contrasted themselves with other colleagues. Appendix A contains nine items on leadership ostracism gathered from the interviews.

Ethical Statement

Ethical approval was not required because this research was conducted in accordance with institutional regulations and did not involve clinical or animal trials. Furthermore, in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, throughout the process we followed ethical guidelines and obtained written consent after participants were informed of the research purpose. Participants were informed that the experience of recalling leadership ostracism might be psychologically uncomfortable. They could terminate their participation in the study and discontinue at any time if they choose. Our research was anonymous and confidential.

Data Analysis

Based on grounded theory, we conducted inductive analysis and explored the inherent logic from practical cases. It included encoding and categorization in a continual process to identify concepts, eliminate interference, and develop a new theoretical framework ( Katz, 2015 ). In the first step, two Ph.D. students independently conducted a preliminary content analysis by screening, sorting, labeling, and coding the interview data. Next, they held an in-person discussion regarding the challenges and differences and conducted a comparative analysis on mutual coding results until a consensus was reached ( Wilhelmy et al., 2016 ). To ensure objectivity, original phrases or descriptions that reflected the same behavior were kept and labeled as the first-order code ( Sbaraini et al., 2011 ). By conceptualization, synonymous expressions that had similar meaning were integrated and renamed. For example, “judging people by appearance” and “fond of handsome subordinate” were considered as synonymous expressions and could be conceptualized under the label “appearance stereotype.” In this process, we were also concerned with the relevance of our preliminary concepts and existing items from interpretivist perspective and constructivist perspective, because our intention is to expand on current theoretical framework ( Shah and Corley, 2006 ; Levers, 2013 ).

The second step was axial coding that aimed to identify core categories and dimensions by relating independent concepts. A coding paradigm that included contextual conditions, subject interactions, and behavioral consequence was applied to explore the relationship between concepts and then form different levels of categories ( Suddaby, 2006 ). Through repeated intra-group and inter-group comparisons, we tried to eliminate differences on conceptual classification and seek consensus. Additionally, we provided “member check”–feedback on the categorized classifications to participants who could choose items based on individual experience and gave them opportunities to express opinions ( Stivers, 2007 ). Finally, selective coding was conducted to systematically integrate the relationships between key categories. The coding results indicate that the antecedents of leadership ostracism focus on the behavioral subjects–supervisors (perpetrators) and subordinates (victims), and organizational context.

Results: How is Leadership Ostracism Formed?

Leadership ostracism is a widespread phenomenon in the workplace ( Jahanzeb et al., 2018 ). It is a simultaneous effect of supervisor, subordinate, and organizational context (as shown in Figure 3 ). In the coding process, we identity three key categories, 13 main categories, 29 subcategories from more than 129 initial phrases (see Table 1 ). Specially, the core concepts include supervisor traits (involving narcissistic tendencies, power awareness, stereotype and prejudice, result orientation, and unfairness), subordinate traits (involving political skills, personality, self-concept, and job performance), and organizational context (involving power distance, Chaxu climate, organizational culture, promotion channels, and complaint and appeal mechanisms).

Figure 3 . Inductive model of Leadership ostracism.

Table 1 . Results of interviews.

Supervisor Factors

Narcissistic tendencies.

During the interview process, participants described their leaders as narcissistic valuing only the achievement of their own personal goals or self-interests. They reported a tendency toward partiality to subordinates who are obedient, flatter them, and are good at catering to their emotions and preferences while displaying a hostile and negative attitude toward subordinate feedback. For example, sample reports were as follows:

“ In public, my boss attached great importance to maintaining his image and authority. He was very sensitive to criticism and desired for praise.”

“ My supervisor was narcissistic. He paid much attention on interpersonal intimacy and was keen to establish small groups in the organization.”

Power Awareness

When public and private rights overlap, leadership ostracism is easily facilitated ( Vidyarthi et al., 2014 ). Participants reported that their leaders had a heightened power awareness and ostracized employees who displayed excellent abilities. Additionally, they treated competent subordinates as potential threats and regarded interpersonal interactions as a “zero-sum game.” They might reject subordinates with outstanding ability, deprived them of opportunities to perform, or embarrassed them publicly. For example, sample reports were as follows:

“ My boss was arbitrarily authoritative and suspicious. He had a strong sense of power and disliked subordinates who displayed excellent abilities.”

“ My supervisor demanded absolute obedience to his orders. He issued direct commands in our daily work and did not like to be opposed.”

“ My leader only concerned with work efficiency and outcomes in practice, lacking care and help for us.”


Stereotypes are fixed ideas or opinions toward certain social members ( Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2008 ). Individuals are often judged, regarded, treated, and restricted to their social identity in given settings ( Hoyt and Murphy, 2016 ). Noted in the interview for subordinates was that they were prone to suffering prejudice manifested as gender bias, ability bias, and age bias. An example was that female employees were considered good at “take care” responsibilities rather than “take charge” opportunities and were therefore overlooked for recognition or promotion ( Hoyt, 2010 ). Other sample descriptions were as follows:

“ The supervisor valued work ability and excluded the subordinates who could not meet the desired goals.”

“ She had an obvious gender bias. She treated women subordinates badly and refused to assign them important tasks.”

“ My new leader never allowed the old staff to attend important meetings, nor arranged them important work.”

Results Orientation

Respondents reported that their leaders had a strong sense of achievement and low emotional empathy, and they eagerly pursued work efficiency and committed to promotion. They also reported that their supervisors lacked a compassionate humanistic concern for their subordinates. For this type of supervisor, work results are the only basis for evaluations. When a subordinate has a poor work ability or may not attain expected goals, they are regarded as a burden and consequently become the target of leadership ostracism behaviors.

“ My supervisor was obsessed with high job performance. If you did not meet his requirements, he would think you were incompetent and handed over relevant tasks to other colleagues.”

“ Given that Li had failed several times to complete urgent tasks on schedule, his boss transferred him to the sales department by job rotation. He was unable to adapt to new job and considered quitting.”

Subordinate Factors

Political skills.

In the coding process, we found that in the course of daily work, the ostracized employees lacked the ability to influence others toward realizing individual or organizational goals, which could be regarded as a challenge to leadership authority. They frequently disregarded organizational rules, preferences of leaders, and their own strengths/weaknesses, and they barely perceived environmental changes or made behavioral adjustments appropriate to the occasion. Sample statements were as follows:

“ Wang was reluctant to communicate with others and looked down on others who cater to leaders' preferences."

“ He was a maverick and always rubbed against his boss.”

“ I was a simple and independent person. I did not prefer to deal with my boss direct. Although I was reminded to cater to leaders' preferences, I would not do that.”


Field-independent subordinates tend to have less dependence on external factors and are not as easily affected by the assimilation effect in the workplace. However, this may also be conducive to friction with supervisors. Respondents recalled that victims maintained moral ambitions and refused to conspire with the leaders, especially when they were instructed to violate ethics or damage organizational interests. Therefore, employees who were not inclined to proffering flattery or who pursued their own individuality were ostracized or became targets for exclusion by their supervisors.

“ She adhered to basic principles and professional ethics in her work, and always refused to seek personal benefits for her leaders.”

“ Wang was simple, conscientious and independent. He refused to flatter his boss like other colleagues. Recently, he found that although he worked hard, the job evaluation was not satisfactory.”

“ Zhang had a straightforward character. He clashed with his boss several times and made him embarrassed in public. His colleagues had already been promoted, but he remained in the same post for several years.”


Low self-concept subordinates lack self-esteem and self-efficacy and tend to have higher levels of neuroticism ( Ferris et al., 2015 ). Thus, they are more easily affected by external context accompanied by low job ability. They have poor resistance to pressure and often fall into depression and stagnation once confronted with criticism and/or blame from supervisors.

“ She was timid and dull, and had poor job performance. She always denied his own ability and had a low self-evaluation.”

“ The supervisor thought highly of him, but Li always took an arrogant attitude toward supervisors. He was perfunctory about the work assigned to him.”

“ Tang was once publicly criticized by his boss for a technical mistake. He believed that his ability was not recognized. Gradually, his working attitude became more negative.”

Job Performance

Supervisors tend to take punitive measures on subordinates who cannot achieve job objectives or adapt to high-intensity environments ( Wesselmann et al., 2012 ), while employees who have high job performance may be perceived as potential threats by their supervisors. Respondents shared their experience as follows:

“ She had excellent ability to handle the job. However, the supervisor seemed to be hostile to her. He often deliberately made her embarrassed in public and arranged her some urgent and heavy works.”

“ Zhou was a new employee who often volunteered to do some cleaning or printing work. However, her work performance was very poor. Her boss was dissatisfied and handed over her work tasks to other colleagues.”

Organizational Context Factors

Power distance.

In high-power distance organizations, members generally accept unequal power distribution and lack a spirit of cooperation ( Vidyarthi et al., 2014 ). Subordinates with low-power distance orientation are vulnerable to leadership ostracism because they cannot meet the expectations of leaders.

“ There were complex relationships and hierarchies in our organization, and individual employees had to be careful to avoid being suppressed.”

“ Promotion within our institute was based on the recommendations of our supervisor, and management system did not always work that was more of a formalism.”

“ In my company, supervisors had absolute authority and dominated the career development of employees.”

Chaxu Climate

In the Chinese context, awareness and Chaxu climate are widespread, which specify different interpersonal affinity relationships ( Chen and Dian, 2018 ). Supervisors take interpersonal intimacy as a criterion for resource allocation and job evaluation. For employees who are out of Quanzi , they would have lower expectations toward supervisors, and to reduce the ostracism they experience, they may focus on how to transform themselves into “insiders.”

“ Those who had a good relationship with supervisors, even if their performance was poor, their job evaluations could always be excellent.”

“ A close relationship with our boss was the only way to get training and/or promotion opportunities.”

“ Our supervisor always gave priority to those who were close to him, rather than those who had excellent job skills and performance.”

Organizational Culture

Interviewees reported that some organizational members who took unethical measures to obtain resources, achieve benefits, and serve self-needs would not be punished by the organization in general. The decision-making process, employment system, and compensation structure were not clear or transparent. Respondents perceived that rewards and punishments came from a position of power or a result of nepotism or the revenge mechanism; thus, they decided to change their career development strategy.

“ There were small groups in the organization, and individuals sought out the cliques that were best for them and actively joined them.”

“ Chen was a member of the group led by the former leader, who was deeply disliked by the current leader.”

“ The power struggle in our company was intense and it was important for us to choose factions.”

Management System

Participants reported problems within the organizational management system. For example, regarding promotion opportunities, a supervisor might hinder the career development of a subordinate simply on personal preference. Performance evaluation criteria were subjective and came primarily from the opinions of the leader. Retaliation was allowed in the organization, and employees did not have rights of appeal or recourse. It is worth noting that a lack of supervisory control and organizational support would make perpetrators believe that their behaviors were recognized, warranted, or expected, and this contributes to sense of helplessness of victims ( Balliet and Ferrsis, 2013 ).

“ Our boss had absolute authority over our promotion and performance evaluation.”

“ It was hard for us to participate in making important decisions in our organization, and commands were issued from top-down that cannot be questioned.”

“ I was afraid to tell the truth in the workplace, because it would surely lead to revenge from my boss.”

“ We had no place to complain because there were few complaints and supervision channels in our institute.”

Conclusion and Discussion

Based on the grounded theory and multiple interview cases, we explore the antecedents of leadership ostracism and establish “a unifying theoretical framework” on extant research from three perspectives—supervisor, subordinate, and organizational context.

Toward a Model of Toxic Triangle on the Antecedents of Leadership Ostracism

The concept of the toxic triangle was first proposed by Padilla et al. Based on literature review, they explored the origin of destructive leadership and took Fidel's personal career as an example. Padilla et al. (2007) believed that the emergence of destructive leadership was a dynamic combined effect of destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. Their proposed toxic triangle model of destructive leadership focuses on its “problematic or even disastrous outcomes” ( Padilla et al., 2007 ). It breaks with conventional wisdom that destructive leadership comes from dark, abnormal traits, or behaviors of leaders but takes subordinates and organizational circumstances into account as well. Specifically, “destructive leaders” include characteristics such as personal charisma, power demands, narcissism, negative life experiences, and hate awareness. “Susceptible followers” include unquestioning obedience manifested by unmet needs and low maturity and/or collaborators who share similar worldviews, malevolent values, and personal ambitions with supervisors. Lastly, “conducive environment” includes instability, perceived threats, cultural values, checks and balances, and institutions.

In this paper, we conducted an extension to the leadership research by qualitative method to explore the antecedents of leadership ostracism through case interviews. The case interview was conducted with participants who had encountered or observed other colleagues suffer with leadership ostracism. We take a multicase analysis on an item-by-item replication and differentiation logic to elucidate. Results indicate that leadership ostracism results from an integration of destructive supervisors, susceptible subordinates, and conducive organizational context. This is a “new” toxic triangle model of leadership ostracism based on the original theoretical framework (see Figure 4 ). To be specific, supervisor traits include narcissistic tendencies, power awareness, result orientation, and stereotypes and prejudices; subordinate factors include self-recognition, behavior style, job performance, and political skills; organizational context factors include power distance, Chaxu climate, promotion channels, and complaint and appeal mechanisms.

Figure 4 . The toxic triangle model of leadership ostracism.


Theoretical implications.

There are several theoretical implications to our research. First, regarding the supervisor factors, we found that narcissistic tendencies, power awareness, stereotypes, and results orientation may trigger ostracism inclination of a supervisor. Although research has explored the traits and roles of ostracizers, such as power and status authority ( Fiset et al., 2017 ), studies are relatively scant and there is not yet a unified research framework. Through case studies, this paper systematically explores the leadership factors that determine the extent to which supervisors practice leadership ostracism. Because leadership ostracism is a function of supervisors who act as perpetrators, so the emergence of supervisor characteristics can be regarded as a signal effect of leadership ostracism ( Howard et al., 2019 ).

Second, regarding the subordinate factors, our study revealed that political skills, personality, self-concept, and job performance may make the mentally or physically vulnerable employees become ostracized targets. Extant research has presented the detrimental influence of leadership ostracism on personal performance with little attention on the reflections of subordinates themselves as the ostracized individual ( Xu et al., 2015 ). Essentially, leadership ostracism is an interactive relationship between supervisors and subordinates; hence, it is not a single individual force that determines who suffers as a victim of leadership ostracism ( Wan et al., 2016 ). Furthermore, another valuable contribution to the research would be to explore the different effects of traits of in-group members and out-group members on leadership ostracism within an organization.

Third, in the organizational situation, case studies show that power distance, Chaxu climate, organizational culture, and the management system would reinforce or perpetuate the negative consequences of leadership ostracism. Situational factors influence management practice; for example, job-oriented and employee-oriented organizational cultures may lead to different leadership behavioral choices ( Pheko et al., 2017 ). Therefore, organizational dynamics in how situational factors are recognized, function, and are applied can be further explored in the theoretical framework in future research.

Fourth, we applied the interview method using practical cases in an inductive manner to explore when and why supervisors engage in leadership ostracism and to establish a conceptual model that identifies the antecedent mechanism of leadership ostracism from supervisors, subordinates, and the organizational situation. Our model is consistent with the toxic triangle model of destructive leadership proposed by Padilla et al. (2007) and provides empirical testing of the following: (1) the narcissism and power consciousness of supervisors, (2) the self-concept of subordinates, and (3) the management system of the organizational situation.

Fifth, some distinctive features of leadership ostracism in the model are further found: specifically, stereotypes, and results orientation in the supervisor traits; political skills, job performance, and cognitive style in the subordinate traits; and power distance, Chaxu climate, organization politics in the organizational situation. This contributes to the research on leadership ostracism that distinguishes from destructive leadership and enriches the research on negative leadership. Additionally, we explored the specific influential factors in the Chinese culture, such as Chaxu climate (also referred to as Chaxu geju ), which refers to a differential model based on different intimate relationships; however, this area of study merits further exploration that may elucidate triggers leading to leadership ostracism behaviors ( Chen and Dian, 2018 ; Sun, 2019 ) and deepen our understanding of this social issue. This is especially significant in the Asian culture context.

Lastly, this paper evokes increased future investigation into the triadic interaction between supervisor, subordinate, and organizational situation. In the interactive model, one factor may increase or weaken the effects of another factor under certain circumstances ( Mao et al., 2018 ). Moreover, similarities in the behaviors between supervisors and subordinates may trigger a sense of belonging and exert an interactive influence on leadership ostracism ( Song and Kim, 2020 ).

Practical Implications

Developing a conceptual integrated model is critical for managing the obscure and subtle destructiveness of leadership ostracism on employees and organizations ( Akhtar et al., 2020 ). For supervisors, both strong supervisory skills and control (e.g., policies, command, or system) are the guarantee for maintaining effective management and achieving appropriate checks and balances in the workplace. When selecting or hiring for supervisory positions within an organization, human resource recruiters should pay particular attention to the leadership traits of the candidates, and those with destructive characteristics should be intentionally removed from consideration ( Jahanzeb et al., 2018 ). For subordinates, increased training should be provided to guide employees to freely express themselves and to reject leadership ostracism. In the process, cultivating potential leaders among subordinates would enhance their cognitive and emotional traits when faced with ostracism ( Xue et al., 2020 ). Regarding situational factors, the efforts to eliminate the influence of organizational culture, management system, power distance, and Chaxu climate may depend on organizational norms and values that indicate organizational resilience in the work process. This would include improvement measures in the areas of recruitment, training, job change, compensation and benefits, promotion, as well as other organizational systems ( Pheko et al., 2017 ).

Limitations and Future Studies

As with all studies, there are several limitations worth mentioning. First, the interview data are cross-sectional and primarily taken from subjective recollections of participants on distressing experiences whereby researchers cannot guarantee that variables affecting leadership ostracism should be covered as comprehensively as possible. Second, due to research materials, human resources, and financial and time constraints, the sample size is limited whereby further research on multinational cultures in other settings should be pursued. Third, this model focuses on individual interactive perspectives, with little attention on leadership ostracism toward a particular team/group target. Future research could explore the group-based leadership ostracism that is divided into intergroup ostracism and outgroup ostracism ( Mao et al., 2018 ). Finally, the interactions between leadership, subordinates, and context in our model would benefit from further exploration. Results indicate that relatively independent factors in each domain constitute a simple additive model, and the more factors that occur simultaneously, the greater contribution of the domain to the emergence of leadership ostracism. For example, regarding subordinate characteristics, we see that the interaction between multiple factors such as social sensitivity, political skills, job performance, and self-efficacy is more likely to produce vulnerability in potential victims to leadership ostracism ( Zhao et al., 2019 ). Furthermore, our research does not reveal whether these three influential domains (supervisor, subordinate, and context) produce a mutual offset or enhancement, thereby offering future researchers the opportunity to supplement our study with other empirical methods such as experiments and questionnaires.

Data Availability Statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/supplementary material, further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author/s.

Ethics Statement

Ethical review and approval was not required for the study on human participants in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. The patients/participants provided their written informed consent to participate in this study.

Author Contributions

ZC: study design, evaluation, and revision. MS: get data and draft writing. All authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.

This research was supported by the Key Projects of Chinese National Social Science Fund (20AZD019 and 17AGL014), Chinese Science Foundation of Ministry of Education (18JHQ080), and Huazhong University of Science and Technology Special Funds for Double-first Development of Humanities and Social Sciences (HUST2019).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Akhtar, M. W., Syed, F., Javed, M., and Husnain, M. (2020). Grey shade of work environment triad -effect of supervisor ostracism and perceived organizational obstruction on employees' behavior: a moderated-mediation. Leadersh. Organ. Dev. J . 41, 669–686. doi: 10.1108/LODJ-07-2019-0334

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Interview protocol

1. What is your direct supervisor like?

2. How do you get along with your supervisor?

3. Have you ever been ostracized, neglected and rejected by your supervisor?

4. Please describe a specific situation in which you are ostracized, neglected and rejected by your supervisor.

5. How do you respond to these unpleasant sufferings from your supervisor?

6. In your opinion, why does your supervisor ostracize, neglect or reject or neglect you? Please discuss it in terms of supervisor, subordinate and organizational environment factors.

7. Have any other colleagues in your organization ever been ostracized, neglected and rejected by the supervisor?

8. How do these colleagues get along with the supervisor?

9. Please describe a specific situation you have observed in which other colleagues have been ostracized, neglected and rejected by the supervisor.

10. How do your colleagues respond to these unpleasant sufferings from the supervisor?

11. In your opinion, why does the supervisor ostracize, neglect or reject these colleagues? Please discuss it in terms of supervisor, subordinate and organizational environment factors.

12. Supplementary contents.

Keywords: leadership ostracism, power distance, political skills, Chaxu climate, toxic triangle model

Citation: Chen Z and Sun M (2021) Qualitative Study on the Toxic Triangle Integration of Leadership Ostracism. Front. Psychol. 12:655216. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.655216

Received: 18 January 2021; Accepted: 28 June 2021; Published: 29 July 2021.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2021 Chen and Sun. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Mei Sun,


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