The Plague of Office Bullies | Lessons in Leverage

“Where are they now?” Those school yard bullies who’d torment you at recess and those “mean girls” who’d text snarky comments about you.

Chances are they’re someone’s boss or coworker, maybe even yours.

Bullying has become epidemic. 

We’ve all heard about the often terrible consequences of bullying among tweens and teens. Now there’s the suicide of a grown man, already suffering from chronic depression, allegedly bullied to his limit by his boss.

There are endless motivators for bullies and their bullying tactics. The psychology of bullies is for the professionals, but their overarching motivation is to make themselves feel they’re “more” and you feel “less.”

Their weaponry is generally words, particularly criticism of our:

  • Appearance or way of speaking
  • Friends and associates—people we hang around with
  • The way we go about our work and the outcome

They attack who we are and undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence, and credibility.

A bully boss or just a demanding one? 

Some bosses expect a lot from us. They are hard drivers with strict standards of conduct and productivity. They expect us to deliver quality work every time and a lot of it. Does that make them bullies?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my boss clear and consistent about what I’m expected to do?
  • When I make a mistake, does s/he explain how to correct it?
  • Does feedback focus on the work and not on me personally?
  • Do I get both positive and corrective feedback?

“Yes” answers speak to a demanding boss, not a bully. Phew!

But if you answered “no” and have a boss who persists on “hurting” you with his/her words and/or treatment, you likely have a bully on your hands.

Neutralizing the bully at work 

Workplace bullies will try to make you wrong, inferior, powerless, isolated, ostracized, and impotent. They make a habit of undermining your influence, your voice, your associations, and your value.

Neutralizing a bully takes a lot of work on your part. Too often we let the bullying go on too long before we start to pull together an offsetting strategy.

Moving on is always an option. For some people, the emotional effort it takes to counteract a bully just isn’t worth it.

In her Harvard Business Review article, How to Confront an Office Bully,  Cheryl Dolan writes, “Bullying can’t survive in workplaces that won’t support it. Intervention by management is a powerful weapon to reducing bullying in the workplace. Most targets can’t win alone — most bullies will never stop. It’s a complex issue, and intervention often carries consequences. But there are situations where it’s worth the risk, personally and professionally.”

A proactive, intervening management is the ideal but not always the case. As employees, we need leverage. Bullies are less likely to push people around who have more powerful friends.

That’s why it’s important to build a strong “power base” at work. This isn’t about where you are on the organization chart. It’s about how you engage others who will have your back. 

Affiliating with people at every level of the company is a good start. When a critical mass of well-regarded people know you, bullies are less likely to target you. Why? Because they have no idea whether or not you can turn the tables on them.

How this works! 

Let’s say you are an entry level employee with less than a year of service. Here’s how you can start to build leverage:

  • Acknowledge publicly the work of administrative and facilities staff
  • Get to know lots of people in other departments
  • Acknowledge by a short e-mail the accomplishments or promotions of managers and/or executives
  • Build a solid relationship with your boss (hopefully not the bully)

These people become your “following,” able to counter bullies through their own channels when you need them to. Business fitness requires a strong following and the leverage that comes with it. Be strategic. Be careful!

Have you ever been or seen people bullied at work? Will you share your insights about how to contend with it? I’d be grateful!




6 thoughts on “The Plague of Office Bullies | Lessons in Leverage

    • You are so right. Fear is the crippler. The bully instills it and the company reinforces it if they let bullying exit there. The politics of bullying are enigmatic. Sometimes it’s hard to know who’s on your side. When we think our jobs are in jeopardy and we need those jobs, we are less likely to feel courageous enough to speak up. We always need to ask ourselves, “Will our careers grow in this situation?” If not, we’re better off finding another job, free of bullies. In the long run, it may be a better investment. Many thanks for your great comment! ~Dawn

  1. I like the distinction you make, Dawn, between demanding and bullying bosses. Looking back on my career, I worked with two difficult bosses – but they weren’t technically bullies. Nonetheless, due to our different professional styles and managerial approaches, I experienced a great deal of frustration and anxiety. HR wasn’t much help at the time, but I did have support from my broader network and allies in the workplace who reinforced that it wasn’t just me who had difficulty dealing with these two people. I also learned an important lesson from these experiences – after a while you need to stop complaining about the situation (to avoid getting labeled as a “whiner”) and find a way to proactively cope … even if that means finding another job (another reason to build a strong network).

    • Sybil, your experience covers all the bases! Thanks so much for sharing it. I love how you validated the scope of your difficulties with coworkers and attempted to work through the system (HR). But, you are so right, that in the final analysis we either decide to stay or go. If we stay, we must commit to making the best of it, preserving a positive brand in the wake of trying circumstances! Our networks are king for our struggles inside and our options outside. This is a fabulous comment that truly expands the conversations and enlightens us all.

  2. I stood up to my bully co-worker. He was starting to stop bullying me. Then – my boss took the bully’s side and somehow I am coming out of all this looking like the bad guy and the bullying is starting again!!!! Unbelievable!!!

    • Amanda, Ugh….Well, kudos to you for confronting your bully coworker and seeing some relief. I don’t know if you’ve done this or not, but there surely is a need to talk to you boss and provide your perspective and, importantly, asking why the boss is taking the bully’s side and sadly becoming culpable for the bullying. It’s okay for your boss to support another employee’s position on things over yours, but it’s NOT okay to condone the resultant bullying. If a conversation your boss doesn’t help, then you may need to go to HR. Ultimately, this situation will determine whether or not you stay where you work. Good luck, Dawn

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