To combat bullying in the workplace, it helps to first understand the problem. This article will focus on answering four common questions people have about bullying.
Why are some people bullies?
People bully others for a variety of reasons. These three broad categories account for most of them.
- Power. It’s about getting what they want and controlling their work environment. The pathway to that power is sometimes straight through other people. The bully believes that by removing those human barriers, his/her power increases.
- Insecurity. Many people who bully may be in a spot where they feel vulnerable. Perhaps they’ve been promoted into a position that is beyond their skill level. In these cases, bullying is a way to keep others from noticing their lack of competence.
- Ego gratification. Some people need to bully because it makes them feel more important. They see an “eat or be eaten” world and are willing to jump into the competition and do whatever necessary to not only survive, but to win.
When trying to change a bully’s behaviors, know that your task will not be easy. These behaviors have been learned and reinforced over many years. Unlearning them will be a major undertaking.
What skills and behaviors make up the profile of a serial bully?
Dealing with bullies would be much easier if they all fit the stereotype of a hyper-aggressive, loud, nasty ogre. They would be easily caught, and it would be next to impossible for organizational leaders to not deal with them.
The problem is they are often able to remain hidden. To the target they may look like the ogre. To everyone else they appear all-together different.
They are smooth-talking charmers who say all the right things when others are around. They are master manipulators great at covering their tracks and shifting blame so that a target’s accusations won’t easily stick. Creating the appearance that they work hard and are good members of the team is one of their core skills.
Bullies are often indirect and non-specific, good at creating suffering without making it obvious. They may have strongly held prejudices and act on them by saying and doing things to their targets that are mean-spirited, petty and discriminatory.
Who is most likely to be targeted by a bully?
Many of us think of bullies as the big kid on the playground picking on the small kid. As children, physical strength often did play a role in who bullied and who was targeted.
A 2010 poll found that the bully’s targets are more likely to be women than men. It also found that younger (less than 24) and older (55+) workers are most likely to report being bullied. When sharing these stats in my bullying prevention workshop, people usually nod their heads in agreement.
Unlike the playground scenario, size is no longer the determining factor. The adult target may have something the bully envies and wants. The target may have a position the bully wants. Perhaps the target is highly competent and popular. By attacking on those fronts, the bully hopes to improve his position relative to the target.
If prejudice is the issue, the target is a member of a group the bully doesn’t like and is willing to harass.
Counter to commonly held beliefs, the ideal target for a bully is personally strong, but has some vulnerability the bully believes he can exploit. Sometimes it might be as simple as the target not being willing to have an uncomfortable conversation.
What triggers bullying at work?
There are many things that can set off a bully. Usually some change triggers the behavior. Relationship changes due to reorganization, a promotion or demotion, a process change that puts the bully at a perceived disadvantage, an illness are all possibilities. The bully may believe, often mistakenly, that the target was somehow disrespectful, and justifies the bad behavior as payback.
Dealing with bullying at work is a tremendous challenge, requiring careful planning. Hopefully better understanding what is happening will help you create that plan.
Here are more articles in this series.
- Defining the problem
- Understanding the problem
- Response options
- Change your thinking
- Confront the bully
- Report the problem
- Leave the situation
- Defend your coworkers
I’d also welcome your call to discuss your situation. Grab a slot on my calendar with the link below.