I met Brenda when she managed a 2,000-person department for a Fortune 500 company. Brought in to help her with an upcoming change initiative, I was impressed by Brenda’s intelligence, creativity, political savvy, and dedication to her job. She had all the qualities of a senior executive – which was her career goal.
But she was also a bully. One direct report described her as a “kiss-up and slap-down kind of manager.” The targets of the bullying were especially demoralized, but even those on her staff who only witnessed the bad behavior began to devote more energy to protecting themselves than they did to helping the company. Brenda’s dysfunctional management style eventually led to a decline in her department’s performance and, as a result, the change initiative was abandoned. Eventually Brenda’s career was derailed by the increasing number of enemies she made with every nasty glare and mean-spirited remark. She resigned when it became obvious that she would never get the promotion she coveted.
Stories about bullies don’t always end with them resigning in disgrace. In fact, many bullies thrive. You may even be working for one.
By definition, workplace bullying is the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of an employee in the form of verbal abuse or behaviors that are threatening, intimidating, or humiliating. Bullies at work practice psychological violence. They yell, insult, throw tantrums, steal credit, spread rumors, withhold crucial information, and/or socially isolate their targets by excluding them. The body language of bullies includes staring, glaring, or totally ignoring the target when he/she speaks. Bullies often engage in aggressive finger pointing, invade personal space and use touch as a measure of control (a bone-crushing handshake) or a means to patronize (a pat on the head).
- According to a 2010 Workplace Bullying Institute Survey, 13.7 million adults reported being bullied at work.
- Bullies are typically bosses. In fact, 72% of bullies outrank their “targets.”
- Bullying is not illegal unless the target is a member of a status-protected group (due to gender, race, age, etc.) and the bully is not a member.
- The financial damage bullies do to their organizations is often undetected, but can be seen in the cost of increased turnover and absenteeism and in decreased employee engagement and collaboration
Some bullies are put into leadership positions because they appear to be smart, ambitious, results-oriented and “take-charge.” All of which may be true (as in Brenda’s case), but in addition to those more positive characteristics, most bullies lack empathy. They seem immune to the suffering of others.
Dr. A.R. Mohammad, an addiction expert and adjunct professor of addiction medicine at the University of Southern California, offers this perspective:
Addicts have some inherent characteristics. They have an inflated self-esteem and a false sense of entitlement. These characteristics may lead to bullying.
Furthermore, occupation is one of the environmental risk factors of addiction. People who have high-pressured jobs, are under a lot of stress, and have easy access to drugs and alcohol are more prone to develop addiction. Bullying would be another way to cope with that stress.”
So how can you tell if you’re working for a bully or just a tough boss?
One way is to realize that tough bosses treat people equitably. They may be hard on everyone, especially during a crunch time, but they tend to ease up when the crisis is over. Bullies target only a few, and their bullying is relentless.
Another way to gauge whether or not you are being bullied is by monitoring your mental and physical reactions. Targets of constant bullying often become physically ill. Especially prevalent are cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, and a common first sign is hypertension. Targets also suffer emotional distress, including self-doubt, plummeting self-esteem, and depression.
Worn down mentally and physically, it’s no wonder that when it comes to dealing with bullies in the workplace, a lot of targets don’t even try. They simply quit their jobs.
If you are being bullied at work, here are few tips:
- Realize you are being bullied and it’s not about you and your work. It’s about dominance and control
- Take a stand from the beginning. (This is the most vital tip as targets suffer added pain and shame from not standing up to the bully in the first place.)
- Stay professional. Speak calmly and confidently, and make your position clear.
- Document and confide in others you trust
- Report it to Human Resources if the bullying continues
BTW: I’m the co-author of Every Body’s Talking a new book on body language for children in grades 4-8. The book is filled with tips for projecting self-confidence and for understanding and responding to the nonverbal signals from teachers, parents, and friends. But that’s not the main reason I wrote it. Learning to read body language is also an effective way to develop empathy for others – and in turn, hopefully, reduce the bullying that has become such a problem on grade school campuses.
In the schoolyard or in the workplace, bullying is a way to exert control over others through intimidation. Without a doubt, children who are bullies on the playground grow up to become bullies in the boardroom.