July 23, 2006

Good day, team,

The coach’s challenge this week is about dealing with bullies in the workplace. 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, 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 harrassment and verbal abuse.

Workplace Bullies

Following is a list of common tactics of workplace bullies [the use of male pronouns here stands for both men and women]:

*Constant criticism* is the bully’s attempt to undermine the
Target’s self-confidence. By exaggerating the Target’s mistakes,
the bully intends to a) make the Target look incompetent in the
eyes of co-workers, b) make his own work look better by
comparison, or c) divert attention from his own mistakes. Often,
the bully will expand his 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* is a tactic 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 the bully’s threats and verbal assaults. The bully takes a
“divide and conquer” approach.

*Monopolizing* allows the bully to work his way into a
position in which he is 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. The
Target gets what he needs only if the bully gets what he wants.

*Gossip* is perhaps the most common tactic of workplace bullying.
Simply put, the bully starts a rumor about the Target. As the
rumor moves through the workplace, the Target finds himself the
object of suspicion. Since the bully often controls the Target’s
contact with co-workers, the Target has no way of knowing what’s
being said about him behind his back. Co-workers who have little
contact with or were hired after the Target may judge him by the
bully’s gossip rather than by his performance. By spreading rumors
about the Target, the bully is turning his co-workers against the
Target. This is a form of mobbing.

*False documentation,* also called the ghost gripe, is an
effective tool for the bully. The bully claims that complaints
have been filed about the Target’s behavior or performance. The
bully will either fabricate an incident or misdocument a real
event to place the blame on the Target. He will refuse to identify
the complaintants, citing the company’s confidentiality policy and
saying that he wants to prevent retaliation. In reality, he is
preventing the Target from investigating the complaint and
disproving the allegations. The bully uses the company’s policies
to achieve control over his 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* is a very common bullying tactic. The bully
places himself in a position in which he can claim credit for the
Target’s efforts and ideas. The Target is unable to document his
efforts, so the bully gets the rewards while the Target is stuck
with all of the work.

*Verbal abuse* is often used by the bully to attack the Target
personally. Verbal abuse includes-but is by no means limited to
-profanity, shouting and racial or ethnic slurs. It may consist
of giving the Target a disrespectful nickname or subjecting him to
a constant stream of insults.

*Passive aggression * is a common tactic of lazy bullies. By
leaving certain jobs undone or incomplete, they force the Target
to do their work for them. Also, if they discover behaviors which
irritate the Target, they will be certain to repeat those
behaviors until the Target loses his temper, thus giving the
Target an undeserved reputation for violent behavior.
Procrastination is a common form of passive aggression.

*Sexual harrassment* is another common tactic.

*Violence* is the bully’s last resort. 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.

Common Mistakes by Management

*Appeasement* is perhaps the most common mistake managers can make
when dealing with bullies. This approach assumes that the bully’s
aggressive behavior will cease when he is given what he desires.
History has proven this approach to be counterproductive. A person
who uses aggression to satisfy his desires has no logical reason
to stop being aggressive. He may calm down for a while when given
what he wants, but he will be resume and possibly escalate his
aggressive behavior when he wants something else.

*Blaming both parties* is also a common mistake. When this
happens, the manager punishes the bully for aggression, but also
punishes the Target for failing to get along with the bully. The
manager ignores the possibility that the bully is purely to blame.

*Blaming the Target* is an even more serious mistake. Instead of
acting against the bully, the manager may simply order the Target
to stop complaining. If the Target continues to complain about the
bully’s behavior, the manager will discipline the Target and may
even come to the bully’s defense. Thus the Target is made to
suffer twice, once at the hands of the bully and once at the hands
of management.

*Ignoring the issue* deludes management into believing that problems will
vanish if the bully’s behavior is ignored. Thus the bully goes
unpunished. A bully who goes unpunished has no logical reason to
relent. His 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* plays into
the bully’s 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 the bully to accuse the
Target of “not being a team player.”

Your challenge this week is to ask yourself if you’ve identified 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 great week!


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

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