Bossy or just plain bully?


Dealing with a bully, whether on the playground or the workplace, can be a traumatic, not to mention energy-sapping, experience. When a bully is present, everyone stays on edge, never knowing when—or who—the bully will strike next.

What can you do when the workplace bully is in charge? How do you successfully work when you’re constantly looking over your shoulder to see if you’re next in his or her line of sight? Especially when his catch phrase is “you’re fired.”

Though fear and intimidation are counter-productive, some bullies rely on both to get the job done, whether that job is managing a department or running the company. Before we get into what you can do to combat bullying tactics, let’s take a look at the kinds of bullies that can be found in work environments as well as the characteristics of bullying targets.

Bully types

Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie, internationally recognized researchers, say bullies are rarely psychopathic. Also, the majority of bullies are opportunistic, terrorize with impunity, and 80-90% of bullies are bosses. In their book, The Bully At Work, they’ve identified broad categories of bullies, cautioning that these categories are not rigid and bullies can adopt any tactic at any time to accomplish their goal. They note the categories and corresponding bullying traits are:

  • Constant Critic. An extremely negative, nitpicking, perfectionist, this kind of boss is a whiner, complainer, fault-finder, and often a liar. He or she masks personal insecurity with public bravado and aims to destroy confidence and encourage self-doubt.
  • Two-Headed Snake. This Jekyll-Hyde boss plays favorites and has a passive-aggressive, indirect and often dishonest style of dealing with people and issues. He or she pretends to be nice while sabotaging you with “friendliness” that serves only to decrease resistance to giving information that may later be used against you. With a smile that hides naked aggression, he or she assassinates reputations.
  • Most transparent of the controllers. Needs to establish self as “one up” on you, to order you around, or to control your circumstances. Control of all resources (time, supplies, praise, approval, money, staffing, and help) is the most important aspect of work. Approval must be solicited.
  • Screaming Mimi. A stereotypical bully, he or she controls through fear and intimidation. Emotionally out of control—impulsive, or explosive, threat of physical violence becomes issue—this bully wants to instill a sense of dread and, usually overbearing and/or self-centered, he’s insensitive to the needs of others. Very worried about being detected as imposter, her bombast masks incompetence.
  • The Workaholic. This type of boss never seems to stop working, texting, tweeting, or emailing—even on weekends or late at night—making you feel guilty for having personal time.

Bully targets

Bullies often target employees or coworkers that exhibit a desire to cooperate and have a non-confrontational interpersonal style. As a general rule, their targets value honesty, fairness, and integrity and, as a result, are vulnerable because they tend to be more tolerant of others even to their own detriment. According to a 2012 poll of more than 650 bully targets, the top five reasons they were bullied in the workplace are:

  1. Bully threatened by target’s technical skills
  2. Bully’s abusive-toxic personality
  3. Target is not a political game player
  4. Bully threatened by target’s popularity with others
  5. Target perceived as weak

One of the most detrimental aspects of workplace bullying—the impact on bullied targets’ health and well being—distinguishes bullying from less damaging behavior, including: office politics, misguided teasing, horseplay and/or roughhousing, incivility, and rudeness. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2003 survey shows the top five health-related issues that targets experience as a result of being bullied are:

  1. Anxiety, stress, excessive worry
  2. Loss of concentration
  3. Disrupted sleep
  4. Feeling edgy, irritable, easily startled and constantly on guard (paranoia)
  5. Stress headaches

What HR can do to stifle bullying at work

A few of the ways to help reduce or eliminate bullying in the workplace include, but are not limited to:

  • Getting management to commit to a bully-free environment and establish and enforce clearly written policies about what is and is not acceptable behavior
  • Identifying potential aggressors by looking for bullying tactics and documenting unacceptable behavior
  • Watching for signs of stress throughout the organization—at all levels
  • Including questions about bullying behavior in employee satisfaction surveys and exit interviews
  • Evaluating data (e.g., turnover, benefit costs, recruiting/retention success, productivity, workplace illness, and accidents) for signs of inappropriate behavior
  • Implementing ongoing education, training, and communication programs, especially for supervisors and managers
  • Scrutinizing illegal employment practice claims and consult legal counsel for advice specific to your situation

But, what can HR do when the bully is the boss? Begin with the first item in the list above and fine-tune an existing one or develop a new policy regarding acceptable workplace behavior. If the head honcho is at least moderately self-aware, he or she will get the hint.

If you’re the head of HR, build a trusting relationship with the boss to coach him or her toward improved behavior. If the relationship is sound enough, you may be able to share more effective methods to manage employees. If you’re relationship, however, is shaky at best, seek the counsel of a trusted third party, preferably one that is outside the organization, to help you develop an action plan for dealing with destructive behavior.

Additional Resources:

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