BUSINESS | LIFE | LESSONS

B Is For Bullying

How to identify a bully before anyone gets too hurt

The first post I wrote for this series was — ‘A Is For Attitude’ — which explained how making a conscious choice to have a positive attitude made you more likely to succeed and had other medical and psychological benefits.

This second post is not as positive.

I aim to share my experience from grievance investigations I have conducted during the last decade of the characteristics or profile of the ‘typical’ or ‘average’ bully.

[Now, I fully understand the problems with using averages, as they can be extremely misleading. If I was to say you had “more than the average number of legs it would probably be technically accurate, but very misleading. Most people would instinctively think I was describing somebody with three legs, rather two or that the average number of legs might be 1.99!]

Anyway, I digress.

I believe ‘bullies’ don’t just appear overnight. Babies aren’t born with bullying tendencies. Individuals ‘become’ bullies — due to a whole host of external influences — over time. Many people may exhibit more bullying characteristics when they are under stress (or even when they are subjected to bullying from above — leading to a ‘bullied bully bullies’ scenario). But I have never heard of a situation where employees left a decent manager behind at work one evening, only to find them transformed into a bullying monster by the following day. [Apart from Dr Hyde’s cleaner, perhaps!]

So, if people don’t become bullies overnight, how do they progress into management positions without being ‘found out’ by the companies who employ them first?

During the course of my investigations over the last decade I have identified the following ‘types’ of workplace bully:

  1. The Charmer — everyone appears to like the Charmer, so why can’t you? To the many, they seem intelligent, confident, and good fun around the office. But to a small number who, for whatever reason, they take an instant dislike to, are harsh, unfairly critical and mean.
  2. The Snake — initially appears to support you but is secretly criticising you to their bosses & falsely claiming your successes as their own. Eventually, when you have served your purpose, they will pounce on you, and given they have already destroyed your reputation with their superiors, it will be much harder to challenge them.
  3. The Outspoken Critic — is less sneaky than the Snake; they slowly and continuously criticise everything you do and how you do it. However good your work is, they can still find flaws in it or (falsely) claim it was only good because of the guidance and support they gave you. Nobody knows why they do this.
  4. The Narcissist — it’s not difficult to identify this type of bully. They want to be the centre of attention and for those around them to love what they say, do and own. They can be flash, brash and ‘splash the cash’ as they attempt to ‘buy’ admiration. But for those non-admirers, the Narcissist will turn on them and shout, belittle, or do anything to demean them and ridicule them in front of their adoring fans.
  5. The Technical Genius — was recruited or promoted into their role because of their expertise. Not because of their people management skills. Anyone who doesn’t live up to their ability level — usually most people — is dismissed as underachievers and time-wasters. Nothing they can do is good enough, and the Technical Genius doesn’t have the empathy to understand the impact their unkind words are having on those around them.

Technically sound — but managerially poor — managers can therefore survive. The longer they do, the more ‘invested’ the organisation is in them. The company’s hierarchy becomes more complicit in their acceptance of their behaviour. They hired him (or her), promoted him, and put him in a position to manage others. Therefore, accepting any employee claims that the manager is a ‘bully’ makes the organisation culpable, in part.

The ‘bully is therefore sometimes defended by the company and described as “… a strong character” with a “… firm, no-nonsense management style”; someone who “… doesn’t suffer fools (a label any suffering employee will surely take issue with!) gladly”.

With ‘brand management’ being so important to big business, companies don’t want to be seen as “… the company that promotes bullies”.

But what to do? If someone complains about the manager’s behaviour, should the company excuse it?; explain it?; apologise for it? or, act on it? Unless they do take action, the problem — their problem — will only get worse.

Bullies, like leopards, find it very hard to change their spots. Tomorrow’s paper may make tough reading for the company’s board and shareholders. Clearly, the best course of action would have been for the company not to put themselves in such a position in the first place, but it is a bit late to give advice now!

Because the company has historically allowed the ‘bully’ to become a manager or has recruited them into the position, it makes the situation even harder for their victims. Not only do they have to cope with the impact of the bully’s actions, but also with the knowledge that the organisation is aware of it. This fact makes speaking out even more difficult. It takes courage for someone who has been subjected to the inappropriate behaviours of a bully. Behaviours which commonly include:

  • Persistant unfair criticism
  • Micro management
  • Threats and verbal abuse
  • Spreading false rumours about you
  • Putting you down in meetings
  • Giving you heavier workloads than everyone else
  • Refusing your reasonable requests.

On a personal level, suffering any, or all, of the above can lead to stress, low esteem and mental and physical illness. Reduced performance may follow, which in turn gives the bully more “ammunition” to criticise and justify their totally unjustifiable actions.

At a company level the consequences of bullying may be seen by:

  • a reduction in efficiency and productivity
  • higher levels of employee absenteeism and turnover
  • reduced engagement levels
  • adverse press coverage
  • a higher number of grievances and the associated costs of dealing with them.

Companies need to look for signs of bullying rather than finding ways to avoid it. Understanding the importance of an ethical and empathetic approach to people management and the need to train those technically competent managers who haven’t yet acquired them will be an investment well worth the time and money in the short, medium and long term.

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Paul Helsby HR

HR Consultant @ PR-HR Solutions Ltd. Writing to share experiences — good and bad — gained from 25+ years in HR.