5/19/13 “Bullies”

Good day, team.

The coach’s challenge this week is about dealing with bullies in the workplace. Prompted by a request from a client to write about this subject, I am re-publishing the challenge dated 7/23/2006. It is a applicable today as it was then.

First, let’s define what constitutes bullying behavior at work. Here’s the definition of “workplace bullying” from Wikipedia:

Workplace bullying, just like childhood bullying, is the tendency of individuals or groups to use aggressive or unreasonable behavior to achieve their ends. When perpetrated by a group, it is often called “mobbing.” Unlike the more physical form of schoolyard bullying, workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of their organization and their society. For instance, a workplace bully might use the office’s “rumor mill” to circulate a lie about a co-worker. An employee who dislikes a co-worker for personal reasons may incessantly criticize everything that co-worker does. Such actions are not necessarily illegal and may not even be against the firm’s regulations. However, the damage they cause, both to the targeted employee and to workplace morale, is obvious.

According to the *Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute (WBTI), workplace bullying is “the repeated mistreatment of one employee targeted by one or more employees with a malicious mix of humiliation, intimidation and sabotage of performance.”

“Statistics show that bullying is three times as prevalent as illegal discrimination and at least 1,600 times as prevalent as workplace violence. Statistics also show that while only one employee in every 10,000 becomes a victim of workplace violence, one in six experiences bullying at work. Bullying is also far more common than sexual harassment and verbal abuse.”

Following is a list of common tactics of workplace bullies listed by the WBTI:

  • Constant criticism. Bullies attempt to undermine the target’s self-confidence. By exaggerating the target’s mistakes, bullies intend to make the target look incompetent in the eyes of co-workers, make their own work look better by comparison or divert attention from their own mistakes. Often, bullies will expand their criticism to the target’s private and social life. Since criticism can become habitual, the target will be criticized by the bully no matter how well the target performs.
  • Isolation. This tactic used by bullies is intended to separate the target from the workplace’s social circles and information networks. Cut off from all social and business interaction, the target is more vulnerable to threats and verbal assaults. Bullies then take a “divide and conquer” approach.
  • Monopolizing. Bullies try to work their way into a position in which they are the only source of certain supplies or information. The target is thus given a choice between submitting to the bully or doing without necessary facts and supplies. In this scenario, a target gets what he or she needs only if the bullies get what they want.
  • Gossip. Gossiping is perhaps the most common tactic of workplace bullying. Simply put, bullies start a rumor about the target. As the rumor moves through the workplace, the target becomes the object of suspicion. Since bullies often control the target’s contact with co-workers, the target has no way of knowing what’s being said behind his or her back. Co-workers who have little contact with or were hired after the target may make judgments based on a bully’s gossip rather than by the target’s performance. By spreading rumors about the target, bullies are turning co-workers against that person. This is a form of mobbing.
  • False documentation. Also known as “ghost gripe,” many bullies find this to be an effective tool. Bullies claim that complaints have been filed about the target’s behavior or performance. Next, they will either fabricate an incident or misdocument a real event to place the blame on the target. The bullies then will refuse to identify the complainants, citing the company’s confidentiality policy and saying that they want to prevent retaliation. In reality, the bullies are preventing the target from investigating the complaint and disproving the allegations. The bullies use the company’s policies to achieve control over their co-workers. Countless targets have been disciplined and even fired over ghost gripes. False documentation is most common in companies that do not have at-will hiring and firing policies, since the manager must give a valid reason for firing employees he personally dislikes.
  • Stealing the credit. Bullies commonly use this tactic. Bullies place themselves in a position to claim credit for a target’s efforts and ideas. The target is unable to document his or her efforts, so the bullies get the rewards and the target is stuck with all of the work.
  • Verbal abuse. Bullies often use language to attack the target personally. Verbal abuse includes—but is by no means limited to—profanity, shouting and racial or ethnic slurs. It can consist of giving the target a disrespectful nickname or subjecting him or her to a constant stream of insults.
  • Passive aggression. Lazy bullies can be passive aggressive. By leaving certain jobs undone or incomplete, they force the target to do their work for them. Also, if they discover behaviors that irritate the target, they will be certain to repeat those behaviors until the target loses his or her temper, thus giving the target an undeserved reputation for violent behavior. Procrastination is a common form of passive aggression.
  • Sexual harassment. Bullies also commonly use this tactic.
  • Violence. As a last resort, bullies may turn to violence. Unlike schoolyard bullying, surprisingly little workplace bullying involves physical violence. Since violence is illegal, such behavior will usually cost the bully his job and perhaps his freedom. While violence makes headlines, most other acts of workplace bullying aren’t considered newsworthy. Thus, the public is frightened by stories of violence in the workplace while the causes of the violence are ignored.

Note that bullies seldom rely on just one tactic. Most have learned to combine several different tactics in an organized assault on the target. For instance, many bullies will effectively combine isolation and gossip.

Here are some common mistakes made by management:

  • Appeasement. Managers commonly try to appease the bullies they are dealing with. This approach assumes that the bullies’ aggressive behavior will cease when they are given what they desire. History has proven this approach to be counterproductive. People who use aggression to satisfy their desires have no logical reason to stop being aggressive. They may calm down for a while when given what they want, but they will resume and possibly escalate their aggressive behavior when they want something else.
  • Blaming both parties. When a manager blames both parties involved, the manager punishes the bullies for aggression but also punishes the target for failing to get along with the bully. The manager ignores the possibility that the bullies are purely to blame.
  • Blaming the target. This mistake is even more serious. Instead of acting against the bullies, the manager may simply order the target to stop complaining. If the target continues to complain about the bullies’ behavior, the manager will discipline the target and may even come to the bullies’ defense. Thus the target is made to suffer twice, once at the hands of the bullies and once at the hands of management.
  • Ignoring the issue. Sometimes management is deluded into believing that problems will vanish if the bullies’ behavior is ignored. Thus the bullies go unpunished. Bullies who go unpunished have no logical reason to relent. Their aggressive behavior will continue and may even escalate to physical violence. This approach involves wishful thinking on the part of the manager.
  • Emphasizing teamwork and ignoring individual effort. This mistake plays into the bullies’ hands. Often, the target is a creative, productive individual whose ideas work. In today’s workplace, the emphasis is on team effort. Management tends to dislike subordinates who think for themselves, regardless of how good their ideas are. This makes it easy for bullies to accuse the target of “not being a team player.” ”

Your challenge this week is to ask yourself if you can identify any type of bullying behavior within your environment and if you’re willing to deal with it. More important, ask yourself if you manage others by bullying them or if you’re making some of the common mistakes management makes in dealing with workplace bullies.

Each of us has a responsibility to create an atmosphere in the workplace that is free of hostility. We do this by adhering to the human resource policies that are already in place in our companies or, if they don’t exist, by creating good, sound policies that are very clear about which behaviors are acceptable in our work environment and which are not. As managers, we need to work together to ensure that the workplace is safe, not just physically, but also emotionally.

Have a good week!


Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

For more information about workplace bullying, please go to http://www.workplacebullying.org/

© Copyright 2013 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.

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