According to the 2021 Workplace Bullying Institute report, 30% of adult Americans are being bullied. Another 19% at least witnessed such behavior. Interestingly this applies even to remote workers where the number of bullied workers grows to 43%.
There is a fine line between being a hard-charged boss and a bully. Just because there is a personality clash or the boss has a high-demands on the team doesn’t mean there is bullying taking place. It turns into bullying when the boss uses unreasonable demands and an aggressive communication style against a selected individual or group of people and does so persistently. It then leads to the destruction of the target’s self-esteem and limits their ability to be productive.
As Nathanael J. Fast, assistant professor of management at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, suggests, it is often the tendency to promote people based on their technical expertise and academic achievement and setting the bar too low concerning their interpersonal skills that leads to bullies getting into a position of power.
Bullies in management are often smart and supremely confident, but instead of using their smarts to create self-awareness and understand their strengths and weaknesses, they focus on building a fiefdom that no one can contest. Any sign of independence or rebellion gets squashed at the beginning. They let their ego and narcissism win over their responsibility towards their team and the company.
Injustice in workplace
In her brilliant book, Just Work, Kim Scott explains the three main areas of injustice in the workplace have different causes and different solutions. It is bias, prejudice, and bullying. They are the roots of the problems that can eventually escalate to harassment, discrimination, and even violence.
Bias is unconscious. People are not aware they are biased, but that doesn’t give them a pass to do whatever they want. It is often based on stereotypes we are exposed to all our lives and therefore don’t see them.
Prejudice is conscious. It becomes visible when we get our biases pointed out and start arguing that they are not true, and we become defensive. We find ways how to justify these biases, lean heavily into stereotypes. We now are consciously promoting injustice while believing we are good people.
Bullying is the final stage. It is not only conscious, but it is willfully mean. The bully is actively trying to cause harm or humiliate others, usually for some selfish reasons. It may be based on prejudice, but it may be just instinctive behavior that some people have. Bullies derive pleasure from seeing others suffer. It makes them feel powerful and in control. It is also a way to show the world that they are powerful, in control, and better than others.
Bullying at the workplace has many forms. Starting with verbal bullying like insults, making derogatory, sexual, or bigoted comments, using verbal threats, and abusive language. Relational bullying revolves around trying to exclude someone from the team or the peer group. Usually, it is done by verbal bullying towards the individual and by spreading rumors and intimidating others not to engage with the individual being bullied. Other more subtle forms of bullying often perpetrated by managers are constant criticism, blocking promotions for other reasons than performance, overbearing micromanagement and supervision, or picking on someone with inappropriate jokes.
Bullying in the workplace is pretty prevalent because few leaders stand up to bullies. Only 13% of employers exercise zero tolerance for bullying. Another 24% at least try to do something about it, but the whole 63% of employers react negatively to reports of workplace bullying and side with the bully. They defend it, rationalize it as a routine way of doing business, discount or deny saying that there is no harm, or even encourage it in the name of healthy competition.
What you can hear is others apologizing for the behavior of a bully, saying that “they didn’t mean it,” or “they are really good and just need to communicate better,” even “yeah, they are difficult to work with, but we need them.” Well, a bully is a bully regardless of whether they mean it or not. At best, you can say that they are not a willful bully but a brilliant jerk who is clueless about interactions with other human beings. Well, it is still a problem. It is the impact of their actions that matters. Bullies need to get fired. Brilliant jerks need to get isolated in a role where they can’t cause harm while they can keep contributing to the best of their abilities. If not possible, they need to go too.
Victims and the others
Kim Scott talks about four roles you play in any injustice encounter at work. You can be a victim, bystander or upstander, perpetrator, or leader. To make it more complicated, you can play different roles in different incidents. Or, even more confusing, you can play several roles in the same incident.
Imagine you are a female leader in a team meeting. One of the male colleagues makes a derogatory joke about women. In this situation, you are a victim because the joke was focused on women, and you are one. You are also a bystander as it wasn’t directly addressed to you. And you are also a leader whose behavior will become an example for others. You play three roles in this particular incident.
Most of us don’t like injustice, and when seeing it, we have the urge to do something about it. We get angry and want to do something about it. And then we start thinking about all the possible negative consequences for us, and we get quiet. Bullies are often in a position of power. They are in management or have some sort of advantage over you. That makes standing up to them very risky. As the 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey showed, “targeted employees have a 67% chance of losing the jobs they loved for no legitimate reasons.”
If you see your boss bullying a coworker, you don’t want to step in, as that could bring your boss’ wrath towards you. Even your job could be at risk. So instead of intervening, you feel bad for the person being hurt, and you are worried that it can be you next time. Your boss has free reign to bullying others around them, and the organization becomes very toxic.
Staying silent when faced with injustice is the obvious safe play with long-term negative consequences. Standing up to bullies is an obviously risky strategy with potential long-term benefits. You need to weigh the pros and cons. What can you gain, and what can you lose? What is the worst-case scenario when you don’t stand up to a bully, and what is it when you do? How would your life look in a year if you didn’t do anything? How would your life look like if you did and were unsuccessful? And how would it look like if you intervened successfully?
There are no easy answers, and you need to pick your battles carefully. But if you are in a leadership role, you need to have a bias for action. That’s why you are here. Others observe your action or inaction, and if you decide to act, it will encourage others to do the same in the future. It can create a snowball effect when injustice is slowly rooted out of the workplace.
By doing nothing, you become a passive bystander and enabler. Your inaction shows the perpetrator that there are no consequences to their actions. Kim Scott suggests you act as a leader and an upstander. Upstander gets involved and trying to fight the injustice. When it comes to bullying, upstanders and leaders have a lot of power and can help the victim deal with the bully.
Think back to the example with the derogatory joke I mentioned earlier. Imagine that several of the men on the team, instead of laughing, would stand up and tell the joker that his behavior is unacceptable and he should apologize and don’t make these jokes in the future. The problem would be solved on the spot, and chances are the person wouldn’t make derogatory jokes in the future.
How to fight bullying
Being in a leadership role, you don’t really have a choice. It is your responsibility and your duty to stand up to bullies. Having clarity on your values helps to summon the courage and act.
I always rely on my values and principles in these situations. I’m an introvert, and my standard operating procedure is to listen and be quiet. But I’m also a leader, and it is my responsibility to speak up when confronted with injustice. It gets surprisingly easy when you have clarity on your core values and principles. One of my firm beliefs is that everyone should be treated with respect. It makes it very easy for me to intervene when I see people being bullied, not to mention when someone tries to bully me. At that moment, I don’t need to weigh consequences for me personally because nothing can be worse than to let someone trample all over my core values and principles. My values make me who I’m, and therefore not acting on them would diminish me as a person.
You have to confront the bully. Otherwise, they will never stop. Unexpected intervention often catches bullies by surprise as they are not used to it and may dial it down. To stop bullying, educating is not enough. Even pointing out that the bully is harming someone won’t work. They want to harm others, so it may encourage them to lean in and escalate their bullying. The only way to stop bullying is to clearly explain the negative consequences of their behavior. And if they don’t stop, then implement those consequences without hesitation.
They get one chance. If they don’t stop their bullying tactics, they need to be removed from the organization. Gathering evidence and proof is an integral part of the solution. You should engage their enablers and bystanders who just watch and let bullying take place. With a bit of nudge, you can turn them into upstanders who will rally against the bully. There is power in numbers.
Kim Scott suggests that you go with “You” statements to address a bully and, if possible, invoke negative consequences. Saying “I’m hurt by your action” is not going to stop a bully. Saying “You need to stop immediately or I will escalate to HR” is much more powerful. Bullies will keep bullying as long as it is practical for them and derive some pleasure from it. Bullies expect you to passively take their bullying, so flipping the world on them and getting proactive is the best strategy. When you fight back and stop playing the role of a victim, a bully will often stand down. The unfortunate consequence is that they may pick another target. So ultimately, bullies need to be removed from the organization.
To give you some additional pointers on approaching a bully, consider the tips and tricks I wrote in How To Deal With Office Bullies. In short, it is about assertive communication, never giving in, not fighting back using the same weapons as the bully, allowing them to went and calm down, offering a way forward, standing your ground and ultimately being clear on consequences, and getting help from others.
Putting it all together
In today’s competitive environment where companies fight for the best employees, high ethical standards become a competitive advantage. One of the best indicators of ethics in the company is looking at how toxic the environment the management team created and how they deal with jerks and bullies. Are bullies being shown the door fast, or are they getting a pass because they are “really important for the company”? So-called brilliant jerks are often seen as indispensable for the company, and firing them can indeed cause short-term pain for the organization. Still, long-term, they have a toxic and destructive influence.
Standing up to bullies is a risky proposition. However, that doesn’t change the fact that standing up to bullies is a moral responsibility of every leader and, in fact, of every decent human being. In the end, life is too short to spend it around jerks and bullies.
What is your take on the topic? Do you tolerate bullies in the workplace? Have you ever been bullies? Have you ever became a bully without realizing? Do you intervene when you see others being bullied? Do you believe it is better to stand up to bullies or just leave the toxic environment and go to work somewhere else?
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