Monday, March 10, 2008

C'est une bully.......

When I initially draw a mental picture of a bully, I automatically think of a big burly kid, larger than his peers picking physical fights on the playground. However, experience quickly kicks in with various shapes and sizes to go along with methods of hurting others. Still, my automatic thoughts revolve around the school yard. At first glance, bullying seems to have an age limit. It's a kid thing, right? Wrong. Bullying has many faces, and stretches across all ages. In fact, according to a recently published study, it turns out bullying in the workplace (where adults dwell) is more harmful and more prevalent than sexual harrassment and that more people who are bullied at work are more likely to quit than people who are sexually harrassed.

In an article today in the Globe and Mail, "office bullies can be deviously discreet. In his book The Bully At Work, workplace consultant Gary Namie helps identify these crafty tyrants by placing them into four categories. No matter how it "looks" it's always about control.

  • The Screaming Mimi controls by intimidation, belittling workers with insults, finger pointing and threats of violence.

  • The Constant Critic finds fault with colleagues' work, then plays the role of chiding parent to officemates.

  • The Two-Headed Snake is a passive-aggressive Jekyll and Hyde character who cheerfully goes for drinks with colleagues one day and then trashes their reputations in front of higher-ups the next.

  • The Gatekeeper sabotages co-workers by holding back money, office supplies and vital e-mails.

Adult bullies, like their schoolyard counterparts, tend to be insecure people with ineffective social skills and little empathy. Instead of attempting to grow more self confident themselves, they turn their insecurities and fear of being recognized as incompetent outwards, finding satisfaction in their ability to attack and diminish the capable people around them. And it's not an overnight one time stab. It's a slow cooker poke, poke, poke. A workplace bully subjects the target to unjustified criticism and trivial fault-finding, often without anyone else around to observe the crazymaking behaviour. This can include isolating, ignoring, or humiliating their target. Sometimes it occurs in front of others, like a dismissal.........a non verbal wave of a hand at a meeting, or an interuption with a tone of voice that shrills in condesention.

Different expectations and rules around managing and monitoring work are also an indication that a colleague (or perhaps yourself) is being treated unfairly. If the bully is the target's superior, he or she may: set the target up for failure by setting unrealistic goals or deadlines, or denying necessary information and resources; either overload the target with work or take all work away (sometimes replacing proper work with demeaning jobs); or increase responsibility while removing authority. No matter what, it's an unrelenting unpredictable roller coaster where power is abused and used to undermine another person's spirit.

What's interesting is that the stereotype of the bullied person, someone who's weak or a misfit......the "loner" of the office couldn't be farther from reality. Research shows that the regular target for the bully is usually someone who is competent, well liked by their peers, and dedicated to their work. It turns out that these qualities are deeply threatening because they are out of the bully's reach.

There are big ramifications for bullying in the workplace. Bullies poison their working environment with low morale, fear, anger, and depression.Bullied employees waste between 10 and 52 per cent of their time at work. Research shows they spend time defending themselves and networking for support, thinking about the situation, being demotivated and stressed, not to mention taking sick leave due to stress-related illnesses. There is loss in efficiency, high absenteeism, high staff turnover. The target's family and friends also suffer the results of daily stress because the angst is brought home. Marriages suffer and friendships cool because the bullied employee becomes obsessive about the situation. As well, our health care system ends up repairing the damage with repeated visits to the doctor for symptoms of stress, prescriptions for antidepressants, and long term counseling or psychiatric care. In this sense, we all pay.

And we're all responsible.................

Workplace bullies use many methods to intimidate their targets. Based on studies of toxic workplaces, the Workplace Bullying Institute has identified 25 of the Top Workplace Bully

  1. Falsely accused someone of "errors" not actually made (71 percent).

  2. Stared, glared, was nonverbally intimidating and was clearly showing hostility (68 percent).

  3. Discounted the person's thoughts or feelings ("oh, that's silly") in meetings (64 percent).

  4. Used the "silent treatment" to "ice out" and separate from others (64 percent).

  5. Exhibited presumably uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group (61 percent).

  6. Made up own rules on the fly that even she/he did not follow (61 percent).

  7. Disregarded satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work despite evidence (58 percent).

  8. Harshly and constantly criticized having a different standard for the target (57 percent).

  9. Started, or failed to stop, destructive rumors or gossip about the person (56 percent).

  10. Encouraged people to turn against the person being tormented (55 percent).

  11. Singled out and isolated one person from coworkers, either socially or physically (54 percent).

  12. Publicly displayed "gross," undignified, but not illegal, behavior (53 percent).

  13. Yelled, screamed, threw tantrums in front of others to humiliate a person (53 percent).

  14. Stole credit for work done by others (47 percent).

  15. Abused the evaluation process by lying about the person's performance (46 percent).

  16. Declared target "insubordinate" for failing to follow arbitrary commands (46 percent).

  17. Used confidential information about a person to humiliate privately or publicly (45 percent).

  18. Retaliated against the person after a complaint was filed (45 percent).

  19. Made verbal put-downs/insults based on gender, race, accent or language, disability (44 percent).

  20. Assigned undesirable work as punishment (44 percent).

  21. Created unrealistic demands (workload, deadlines, duties) for person singled out (44 percent).

  22. Launched a baseless campaign to oust the person; effort not stopped by the employer (43 percent).

  23. Encouraged the person to quit or transfer rather than to face more mistreatment (43 percent).

  24. Sabotaged the person's contribution to a team goal and reward (41 percent).

  25. Ensured failure of person's project by not performing required tasks, such as sign-offs, taking calls, working with collaborators (40 percent)

Looked at separately, this behaviour on this list seems minor. But when it happens over and over again, and one tactic is combined with a couple of others, it leaves the targetted individual feeling a sense of dis-equlibrium. It impacts everything from their confidence in working independently on a task without the ability to rely on their own judgement to how they feel others on the periphery of the toxic relationship are perceiving them.

Very quickly, the bullied person feels isolated and unsure of herself.......incapable of working at her capacity, and obsessed with her thoughts about how she is being treated. Trust slips away......... And because the tactics are so nebulous, there is little chance to legally deal with the situation. It is a passive-aggressive mess that is difficult to prove despite an armload of stories and examples. Consequently, the majority of people found in this situation usually move onto another work environment, sometimes leaving behind a job that they love. The bully carries on, simply finding a new target...........

How fair is that?


Robert said...

wow dana you sure have nailed this one from almost every angle. I think you read my post awhile back about a couple office bullies I contend with at work. You give deeper insight into their modus operandi funny thing is the worst one has been being told lately by his longtime gf he needs to grow up and act adult or she may exit stage left good post dana!!!

Marja said...

Wow that is captured really well.
I recognise several of the behaviours and realise that these things happen quite often. I think a good leader is basically important and I am lucky to work with one. In the past I had a boss who selectively bullied to get what he needed. That company didn't last but he still came a milionare out of it

Gypsy said...

I was bullied relentlessly by a superior who was about 10 years younger than me. I was popular with the other employees and I can only imagine she deemed me as some kind of threat. She was excellent at her job so I can't imagine why she would be threatened but I couldn't think of any other reason.

I started documenting every instance of workplace bullying so I would have something concrete to work with if I decided to put in an official complaint. Before I got the chance to do that I became very ill and was diagnosed with MS shortly thereafter. Sounds silly but I have often wondered if the immense stress I was under hastened my condition as I have since learned that stress is the number one enemy of a lot of MS sufferers. Well that and hot weather.

She was a total bitch and it is my eternal regret that I didn't get to bring her to her knees as she had so often done to me. Let's hope I was an isolated incident and she is not still up to her old tricks.

Awareness said...

Hi Robert....that is interesting. I guess bullies can't turn it on and off in their's bound to spill out into their personal lives too. Good thing the girlfriend is standing up for herself. I wonder if it will change his behaviour?

Marja. It's pretty fascinating how many bully behaviours are considered acceptable and are allowed to continue by those around them to a point where they can become MILLIONAIRES!!

Gypsy....The level of stress and the persistancy of it most definatly puts a wear and tear on our physical well being. Like the bullying, the impact of the stress, insomnia, anxiety, adrenaline pumping, depression does take it's toll. Who knows how much of what you went through impacted the onset of your MS. It's frightening.

One of the stats I read while putting this piece together was that despite documentation etc, only 7 % of the workplace bullies are confronted and "dealt with." Rather, a very high percentage of the people targeted quit, move on, walk away because it's just so difficult to prove. Sometimes it's like trying to hold water in your hands.....and when one is feeling so depleted emotionally and physically, there is little strength left to fight back.

Rainbow dreams said...

Hmmm thanks Dana, brings it together nicely in one post.... I can identify...know and have come across this... is it primarily women workplace bullies or are there an equal number of men out there too? I have always put it down to insecure female bosses feeling threatened in some way...

Disillusioned said...

Bullying at a previous work place diminished my confidence so much that I felt incapable of applying for other posts, much as I hated my place of work. It was only when I did manage to get out that I fully realised how poisonous an atmosphere it was. Others had similar experiences - but the "boss" is still the boss there. Go figure,

Baby-Sweet-Pea said...

Very interesting post. I actually quit a job because the bullying by my boss was too much. I received no support from higher up and knew that it would never get better. I guess they failed to see that a woman was still promotable despite the fact that she might breed... (that is almost a direct quote). My piece of mind and self-worth was worth far more than what the job paid. The sad thing is I worked hard and gave ten years to the company, had many friends within the company and with the customers. They had some explaining to do when I left and I smile a little when I think of that.

Awareness said...

katie....I think there are both male and female bullies. The difference perhaps is in the approach and behaviour. I would hazard to guess that female bullies are more passive aggressive and manipulative psychologically than males. But, it's a guess. I havent read much on the differences, but am interested.

I think it always comes down to insecurity, but it manifests itself in different ways. It's a power/control thing always.

Caroline...I had an interesting conversation with a colleague today on that issue.....bullying, or harrassment if you want to call it that is abuse. Any abuse is demeaning and it quickly zaps you of your confidence to a point where you are second guessing yourself and feeling quite paranoid about any decisions you make. It can easily slip into how you are in other seemingly disconnected situations too....It is a very painful pervasive feeling isn't it?

It's also mind blowing to me that these people manage to somehow keep their boss jobs, but they do!

Baby bring up a very interesting point.....there is a point in the situation when the person feeling the pressure and the bullying usually has to cut their losses becauses the "higher ups" refuse to see what is going on (or perhaps the bully is their lackey??).... I think this is why in the majority of these cases that the person being bullied is the one to go and the bully is left untouched. What it does?? It reinforces really appalling bad behaviour.......and the lesson the bully learns???? That their inhumane tactics work. So, why change?

I like my eggs sunny side up said...

I have recently been the victim of bullying not in the workplace but within my social circle. I have found that people use social networks such as blogs and facebook to bully now and that adults use this as a faceless weapon. It makes them feel that they have power over their victims but they don't actually have to do anything but click a few keys on a keyboards. They couldn't possibly be a bully....they didn't do anything's a pathetic passive agressive move.

It is terrible to think that some people who were actually bullied eventually become bullies as adults as well. One would think that they would be extra cautious not to want to make others feel as they once did.

I have blogged about internet bullies recently. It is still happening to me now however I have chosen not to be a victim and give them power over me any longer. said...

Thanks for the post on recognizing those bullies.

I think the hardest to deal with are what I call, “Stealth Bullies,” because they fly below your radar. They’re subtle and covert. But once you recognize them, you can get the energy and learn the skill to resist. Usually you’ll need allies to document and shine a light on them.

Bullies have always existed and will always exist. That’s not our fault. Bullies bully. That’s what they do. And they look for easy prey.

Our task is to recognize and respond immediately and firmly. When you don’t respond rapidly and effectively, bullies don’t take it as kindness or you taking the moral high ground. They take it as weakness and an invitation to attack you more.

These bullies operate at work, at home, in relationships with our parents, siblings, friends, neighbors and strangers (like on line at a store or online cyber bullies) and, of course at school.

Prepare yourself. Test people’s behaviour and decide if they’re bullies. Don’t be distracted by their BS. Ignore their reasons, excuses and justifications. Stop their bullying first. Then you can care about what their reasons are or why they do it. Don’t waste your time trying to understand, educate, convert, rehabilitate or therapeutize them. Just stop them so they can’t hurt you. Don’t wait until you have absolute proof that will hold up in court. Trust your gut. Recognize and act.

I think rainbow dreams, awareness and baby-sweet-pea got it right. Women bully just as much as men. Sure, you can find differences in styles in many cases, but it still hurts their prey.

Fight. But if you can’t win, get out of there. For me, the task is to create a bully-free environment. If someone wants to stay on my island, they have to act in better ways. And sometimes, they own the turf, so I have to take my island with me.

One of the most striking examples I know is of a “friend” who pushed food on a dieter. That’s like “friends” who push alcohol on recovering alcoholics or drugs on recovering addicts. I don’t care what their reasons are. That’s sick.

Disclosure: I’m a coach and consultant ( and have written “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up” and “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” – with many case studies of how to stop bullies in personal life. Also a CD set, “How to Eliminate the High Cost of Low Attitudes,” which is focused on work.

Awareness said...

Sunny......first off....welcome home. I'm glad you had such a great vacation. I know you were looking forward to it so much.
Secondly.....I'm sorry you're dealing with a bully. That must make things very difficult with all of your friends. I know how close you guys are.
there are new avenues for bullies.... we hear about it often with kids and adolescents. I keep an eye on what's happening with Martha and her friends because there are a few who are notorious little shits who like to control things. Every now and then, I'll ask about them in particular just to find out how much chatting is happening etc.
I find that because of the topics I usually write about lately (have moved away from politics and other more testy subjects) I don't have many weird or nasty comments left. Plus, I don't allow anon comments. However, I always feel a bit queasy or "invaded" if I check my site and see a nasty inappropriate comment left.

It's a weenie way of hurting someone isn't it? And yet it works.

hey! if you read this, drop me an email.........let's go for a lunch time walk soon!

Welcome bullybegone person. Thank you for the advice. Yes, I know the Stealth bully type well. Given that I'm not one to work and live under the radar (as much as it would be helpful as times), this is the type that impacts me the most.
Your advice is very helpful.....may I add however, that as much as we need to put our hand up and yell stop, sometimes the hierarchy of the situation doesn't allow this right away. Plus, it takes a while to figure out what's going on. We do have rights, but we also have to put food on the table and pay the mortgage.

I am a strong individual......and never expected to find myself in a bullying environment feeling like I do. Yes, I spent way to much time trying to figure it out....that's how my brain works. I should've been more alert and cut my losses earlier, but I didn't because the bullying quickly zapped me of my confidence in my intuition.
It takes time.......and you do have to up the ante on the self care stuff. your very best to rectify things by getting out of there.... because chances are you can't fight the snake in the grass stealth bomber bully..... it's not worth your health and what's left of your energy and dignity.......