Identifying a Workplace Bully

It has been estimated that one in thirty people, both male and female, is a bully. Whilst the term “bully” can cover a number of different personality disorders, there are a number of behavioural traits which are said to be common to the workplace bully. As well as looking at these behaviour traits, we will also discuss whether there are ways to avoid recruiting bullies into your organization.

Much has been written about the psychology of the workplace bully.  There are a variety of personality disorders which can result in bullying behavior ( eg narcissism, borderline, paranoid, ) and many are said to flow from a dysfunctional childhood leaving the bully emotionally immature and lacking in genuine empathy.  Bullies have deep insecurities which are masked by an often charming and false personality.

A bully typically:

  1. Manipulates through seduction -  a bully encourages others to obey him or her by promising to meet their emotional needs and their career aspirations.
  2. Intimidates through verbal aggression – as well as angry out bursts, the bully may also quietly threaten failure or use guilt or shame to appeal to their victim’s sense of duty.
  3. Plays mind games to distort the thinking of others – the bully keeps people off balance through half truths, hearsay and misstatements. Their distorted version of events is intended to obscure or confuse.
  4. Uses political gamesmanship – the bully builds alliances within the organization.  A bully is good at identifying people who can be controlled by charm and manipulation.  People who follow a bully are often unselfish, caring, passive, self-critical, fearful and vulnerable. Often it is the organisation’s best employees who are targeted as they are seen as a threat by  the bully.
  5. Disguises their true intentions and emotions – the bully can be a master actor who does not reveal their true intentions, which are self-serving and at times harmful to others. They can maintain an image of vision and leadership whilst not exposing their underhand, manipulative nature.

Classic bullying behaviours include recurring outbursts, serious threats, intentional harassment and harsh ridicule.  If called to account over these behaviours, studies suggest that the bully instinctively exhibits a recognizable behavioural response, namely:

  1. Denial – including trivialization of past events
  2. Retaliation- often in the form of a counter – criticism to avoid responsibility.
  3. Feigning victimhood – the bully feigns persecution by manipulating people through their emotions, especially guilt. This may be bursting into tears, saying that they are the person being bullied, martyrdom and portraying the victim as the villain of the piece.

The result of these tactics is that often victims will not make a complaint about being bullied fearing that no one will believe them.

As well as having an often devastating effect on some employees, bullying in the workplace has a huge cost for employers in terms of productivity and profit.  It is estimated that millions of dollars each year are lost by businesses as a result of sick leave, time spent pursuing investigations and legal claims, general workplace disruption and replacement of staff.

Whilst anti bullying policies, training and response procedures are key ways of managing bullying  in the workplace  (which PCC can assist you with),  a solution to this major problem would be to try to avoid recruiting bullies into the workplace in the first place.  Interviews should include some questioning about any interpersonal issues the potential employee may have experienced in their current and previous employment. It is critical that organizations also undertake thorough reference checking of all potential employees and in some circumstances consider undertaking psychological testing.