Saturday, January 30, 2010

I’m a Bully, He’s a Bully, She’s a Bully; Wouldn’t You Like to Be a Bully, too?

by Professor Tony Wheeler
Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management

Reflexively, you’re saying to yourself, “No!” But have you ever experienced the following. You work on a team tasked with redesigning a long existing process. Your team spends months collecting data about the process, and the team comes to a radical decision about changing that process. Knowing that any recommended change will be met with resistance, the team extensively prepares a well thought, well researched presentation to make to other members of the organization. While making the presentation, a single coworker hijacks the presentation, interrupting you with questions and complaints before you can even explain your recommendation. As other coworkers, including you, plead with this coworker to let the presentation conclude before raising questions, the coworker continues to escalate his or her complaints to the point of yelling at you in front of everyone. You feel humiliated and belittled. How do you respond to this coworker in future meetings when he or she unloads on you or another coworker?

I recently experienced this situation when a colleague, who has a reputation for doing so, let loose on me. I’ve seen this type of behavior happen at almost every organization for which I have worked, and the only word to describe this type of behavior is ‘bully’. How do I respond to workplace bullies?The same way about 33% of employees who have been the target of bullying or even just been a bystander: I bully the bully. And no one feels good about it.

So let me explain some conclusions I’ve drawn from the findings of some theoretical research I recently completed on workplace bullying. (I’m collecting data this spring)

First, the basics. While we think that bullies have certain personality traits (aggressive, egocentric, and just plain old mean) that predispose them to bully, workplace bullying research suggests that environmental factors play a stronger role in who will become a bully and who will not. If you work in an organization that has an unsupportive, competitive, and stressed environment, where you feel overloaded in and have unclear expectations about your job, and have a laizzes faire ) supervisor, you will likely see bullying occur in your workplace. Bullies emerge in resource scarce environments, and bullying becomes a behavioral means to an end. That end is the acquisition and protection of personal resources that any employee feels they need to complete their jobs

When you don’t feel like you can meet the demands of your job and when you think you have no support from your boss, coworkers, or HRM department, even you might engage in bullying. If you don’t, surely someone in your workplace will. Workplace bullying data suggests that up to 25% of you currently experience or witness bullying in your organization, and almost 50% of you will experience or witness bullying over your career.

The organizational and personal costs of workplace bullying are staggering. In Great Britain, it is estimated that bullying costs Great Britain’s GDP more than $3B a year and costs employers an estimated 19 million employee absentee days. The targets and bystanders of bullying report decreased job satisfaction, commitment, and performance as well as increased turnover rates, depression levels, suicidal tendencies, and heart attack rates.

Once bullying occurs in any organization, it has a corrosive effect on targets and bystanders of bullying. It introduces more stress into an already stressful and unsupportive environment, and there is a 33% chance that non-bullies will see that the best defense of bullying is to become one. Because the organization allows bullying to occur in the first place, employees quickly realize that the organization tacitly encourages it happen. So employees learn that bullying in their organization might be the best way to get ahead or at the very least survive. Interestingly, heretofore bullies will stop when they change jobs into a more supportive environment.

I need to emphatically stress that becoming a bully to cope with bullying isn’t the most effective coping strategy. To the contrary, research suggests that everyone involved, including the bullies, dislike themselves for allowing the bullying to take place. Unless you are a sociopath, most employees know that bullying is wrong. And all of those bad health outcomes remain.

I do want, however, to emphasize that you can easily identify the climate in which bullying emerges. You can take a “resource temperature” of your workforce. Lower levels of support equal higher chances of bullying. Higher levels of stress equal higher chances of bullying. To stop bullying before it occurs, your organization should implement a zero tolerance bullying policy. And enforce it. Although Robert Sutton of Stanford University famously wrote that organizations should terminate problem employees, the mere presence of a bullying is corrosive. Organizations need to prevent bullying before it occurs, and I argue that resource support is the way to do it.

When my research gets published (hopefully!), I’ll be happy to forward to anyone who wants to read it. In the meantime, I’m here to discuss any questions you might have.


  1. Bullying is the worst preventable short and long term trauma producing event that both children AND adults face today. Enough is enough. Bullying must stop THIS generation. It's time for parents to wake up!

    Sensei J. Richard Kirkham B.Sc.

  2. Tony presents and excellent summary of the organizational conditions that allow this type of behavior to thrive. He also identifies a couple of personality traits that predispose one towards bullying behavior. I would like to add another dispositional variable.

    A behavioral type that has been identified in the self-concept motivation literature is the Invalidator. Invalidators are people who use a set of self esteem reducing mechanisms to make you feel bad and make them feel good.

    What Invalidators Do? The goal behind invalidation strategies is to put you down and make you feel inferior, incompetent, or unneeded. Invalidators pretend to support you by acknowledging some important aspect of your self concept (a skill, value, trait). They follow this supporting behavior by pointing out a shortcoming- again and again. The invalidator acts to keep you in a constant state of uncertainty through vagueness and lack of commitment. Just when you think the person likes or admires you, he or she drops the hammer of invalidation with a criticism, insinuation, or implication of your incompetence. This is often accomplished through body language and tone, and when challenged, the invalidator is likely to claim that you misinterpreted his or her actions.

    Why Invalidators Do It? The nature of invalidating behavior is control and power. Invalidators seek to control those around them. Invalidation is rooted in the insecurity and low self esteem of the invalidator.

    Dealing with invalidators is subject for a blog in itself