Understanding and Effectively Dealing with Bullying at Work

Dr. Brian Monger

There is no doubt that bullying is a strong and current social issue. Many people have experienced it.  Many have stong (if somewhat simplistic and poorly thought out) views.  The potential damage and cost of the phenomenon is undisputed.

“Bullying” still has many authorities trying to define it – not an easy task due to the often insidious nature of the behaviour.

There is no one single definition of what bullying actually is.  I think of bullying as, “purposeful, unreasonable behaviour directed toward an individual or group, that creates hurt a risk to health and safety. It results in a level of (physical and/or psychological) distress

The Bully – A typical profile:

While every workplace bully target is different, targets often share many of the traits below A bully will often fit this profile.  He or she:

  • is usually personal and subjective (objectivity is not a key element) in their attack, knowing that most victims want to be seen as fair and objective in their response.  Most victims believe that using a subjective response will alienate those around them (unless they know they have some support)
  • knows they need supporters and will seek to win supporters with personally targeted charm and kind words usually immediately after launching attacks.
  • is often thought of (described) as smooth, ingratiating, fawning, toadying, obsequious, sycophantic
  • is focused on their own self-interest, not in the interest of the group/company.  But will assist supporters as they need their support against the victim(s)
  • thinks they are popular (Mean Girls Syndrome) and will have supporters who don’t want to be victims.  They like being on the “winning team”
  • often get overt (as well as covert) support from those who dislike the victim(s)
  • is a convincing liar and when called to account, will make up anything spontaneously to fit their needs at that moment
  • the bully sees nothing wrong with their behaviour and chooses to remain oblivious to the discrepancy between how they like to be seen and how they are seen by others
  • very good at manipulating of those around them
  • will fly into rages whenever someone (or reality) challenges them.
  • will target people who they perceive as a threat to them in the workplace.
  • is likely to target a vulnerably person target, but sometimes the bullies target is smart, competent and self-assured. Bullies may also target a veteran and skilled person in the (work) group.
  • very destructive to the group and feelings of trust,
  • will seek to isolate victims and any (brave) supporters by making them feel inadequate and under the threat of further attack.
  • fearless and shameless (People do not want to confront bullies because they rarely just give in)
  • tends to be blunt, aggressive and demanding – for their own purposes.
  • may lack insight into his or her behaviour and seems to be oblivious to the crassness and inappropriateness. However, it is more likely that the bully has a good idea about what they are doing but just switches off the moral and ethical
  • is mostly innocent and charming in front of witnesses but is vicious and vindictive in private, but; no-one can (or wants to) believe this charming individual has a vindictive nature
  • personally impulsive
  • uses targeted insulting and abusive language
  • stimulus seeking
  • excels at deception and should never to be underestimated in their capacity to deceive
  • is shallow and superficial with plenty of fine words and lots of form – but there is a lack of actual substance
  • has good verbal skills and will outmanoeuvre most people in verbal interaction, especially at times of conflict
  • will fight back viciously and highly personally if they feel they are challenged
  • relies on mimicry, repetition and regurgitation to convince others that he or she is both a “normal” human being and a tough dynamic person, extolling the virtues of management fads and laying on the accompanying jargon
  • is unusually skilled in being able to anticipate what people want to hear and then saying it plausibly
  • is emotionally untrustworthy
  • holds deep prejudices (eg against the opposite gender, other cultures and religious beliefs, but goes to great lengths to keep this prejudicial aspect of their personality secret
  • is evasive
  • undermines and destroys anyone who the bully perceives to be an adversary, a potential threat, or who can see through the bully’s mask
  • is adept at creating conflict between those who would otherwise collate incriminating information about them
  • is quick to discredit and neutralise anyone who can talk knowledgeably about antisocial or sociopathic behaviours
  • may pursue a vindictive vendetta against anyone who dares to hold them accountable, perhaps using others’ resources and contemptuous of the damage caused to other people and organisations in pursuance of the vendetta
  • is also quick to belittle, undermine, denigrate and discredit anyone who calls, attempts to call, or might call the bully to account
  • is highly manipulative, especially of people’s perceptions and emotions (eg guilt)
  • poisons peoples’ minds by manipulating their perceptions
  • when called upon to share or address the needs and concerns of others, responds with impatience, irritability and aggression
  • is attention-seeking with a need to portray themselves as kind, caring and compassionate person, in contrast to their behaviour and treatment of others;
  • is mean-spirited, officious, and often unbelievably petty
  • is mostly a taker and rarely a giver or an active participant
  • cannot distinguish between maturity, decisiveness, assertiveness, co-operation, trust, integrity and (bullying) immaturity, impulsiveness, aggression, manipulation, distrust, deceitfulness
  • often misses the meaning of language, misinterprets what is said, sometimes wrongly thinking that comments must apply to him or herself

Bullies thrive on immediate power

Consciously or unconsciously, bullies thrive on immediate power. Bullies seek out people who are vulnerable and who are unlikely to retaliate, confront or report them. Bullies target people who are:

  • Non-confrontational
  • Passive and submissive will rely on the on the victim and others not wanting to “get involved”.
  • Many people stand by and observe bullying and don’t know what to do, Or they “don’t want to get involved”. Others fall in with the bully.

Bullying is about a lack of respect (for the target, but also the group).  It is about a breakdown in management; ultimately, it is about abuses of power

Bullies often have poor coping skills and tackle their insecurities by manipulating others to raise their own perceived self-importance

People who are targets of bullying often think there is something wrong with them.  Especially if they find themselves on their own.

Victims sometimes don’t recognise what’s going wrong with them, they know they are feeling bad and effected and their health is deteriorating but they cannot actually put their finger on what’s going on. That’s often the subtle result of workplace bullying.  It is common for a target of a workplace bully to internalise what’s going on and to believe that they have caused the behaviour that they are being exposed to.  Or they will become quiet and more submissive.  In so doing they are effecting (and often seriously) their health and well-being.

When this happens, there is usually increased pressure on the group or workplace.  And the bully gets further advantage as any resistance diminishes.

Bullying needs to be addressed by promoting its real enemy – dignity and respect; because with these principles, bullying cannot prevail. Bullying is ultimately about isolation – isolating people and making them feel inadequate. If this is so, then the antidote to bullying lies in working together.  Not standing up and being supportive or pretending not to notice will not stop the bullying.  Silence gives them open rein.


The most common type of bullying behaviour is verbal (for example, “using put downs, insults or sarcasm to regularly humiliate, being spoken to in rude or abusive language”); the second most common type of behaviour involved psychological manipulation of the group environment (for example, “requests for help or advice being ignored, being deliberately left out of workplace activities, and excessive scrutiny of work”).

A most alarming thing is how most targets deal with being bullied.  They don’t do anything about it. Some studies suggest reporting the bullying or making a complaint were reported to be the most unsuccessful method taken in trying to resolve bullying. The actions deemed most successful are “no action” and “seeking a new job”,

Workplace bullying can impact on a person from (creating) mild annoyance through to severe psychological, social and economic trauma. Previous research has indicated impacts such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, decreased self-confidence, panic attacks, fatigue, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation.”

There is a direct negative relationship between workplace bullying and health. Workers who indicated that they had been bullied reported poorer health.

The negative health effects of workplace bullying linger on well after the bullying has ceased Many targets of workplace bullying experience post-traumatic stress disorder. According to Stale Einarsen (1999) 75 per cent of the targets of bullying experience the same symptoms as victims of traditional trauma and 65 per cent of those targets still have symptoms five years later. And sometimes they can remain traumatised throughout the whole of their lives.” Victims develop anxiety symptoms including loss of sleep, being nervous and uptight, and feeling scared and panicky for no reason.

Merely witnessing workplace bullying can also have a negative impact on health. This has serious ramifications for workplace health because under the laws of many countries, employers must maintain a workplace without risk to health and safety to all employees The negative impact of workplace bullying is not just experienced by the person being targeted.”

The group needs to provide support for the target – even if they think some of the attack had some veracity to it.  It hurts (the target) badly to find that they have been betrayed by their group. There is a natural assumption that people around us will come to our aid if we are in trouble. When it doesn’t happen, people just seem to give up.

What can leaders and workplace/group members do to stop workplace bullying?

  • identify risks
  • Try to intervene before these risks lead to injury
  • Take steps to minimise further risk once existing bullying has been detected
  • Care for workers and other group members who have been victimised and help them
  • Make it known that the group/organisation does not tolerate bullying;
  • Implement policies and procedures outlining the position on bullying, what is meant by “bullying” and the consequences of “bullying”;
  • Ensure awareness of the company’s policies and procedures;
  • Establishment of a complaints mechanism whereby employees who have been bullied can make a complaint, as well as ensuring grievances are dealt with independently, timely, and kept confidential;
  • Establishment of a mechanism whereby any employee can bring bullying behaviour to light
  • Advise people where they can take their complaints and concerns if they feel the work/group environment is not likely to be supportive

Monitor the effectiveness of these steps on a regular basis.

4 thoughts on “Understanding and Effectively Dealing with Bullying at Work

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