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The Art of the Bully

Bullying has been around forever. We see it in the playground, in politics in social media and of course in the workplace. More and more is being publicly said against bullying behaviour, yet we live in a world where the more we stand up to it, the more we seem to find.

Bullying in the workplace is no accident. In over 20 years of talking to staff about engagement in their workplace, I still regularly hear people say, ‘why don’t senior management see what we see, and do something about it?’.  It seems that the bully goes unnoticed by senior managers, and that can sometimes be the case. But sometimes, the bully is endorsed by senior management, totally by accident.

This blog is for senior managers to hopefully raise their radar on what may be happening in the management ranks below them because that’s where the worst of bullying exists: Managers.

It’s the worst workplace bullying because any management role is authorised by senior execs and should be a living, breathing exemplar of the organisational values.

Bullies know what they are doing

People who give bullies excuses are playing into their bullying. Just because you can’t understand why someone would behave that way, don’t think it must be accidental or unintended. Bullies know they are behaving that way, and in their mind, they’re justified in doing so to ‘get things done’ or ‘sort things out’ or ‘keep people on track’. Every bully I have ever met knew they bullied. I’ve met many that said they enjoyed it.

Bullies manage up well

Bullies never act poorly in front of senior managers. There are often no clues to execs that the person reporting to them is anything other than a hard working person trying to get the job done. Bullies will always aim to look good in front of the most senior people and that’s how they get promoted with everyone else being aghast that it’s happened.

Bullies always have a reason

If any form of poor behaviour comes to the attention of senior execs, the bully has normally laid the groundwork as to how hard it is to work with ‘those people’, the challenges of making things happen for the organisation, and sometimes the stress they are under trying to deliver for you, their boss. Reasons aren’t reasons, they are excuses. Reasons on top of managing up well means the issue is swept away or justified by senior execs because the bully is getting the job done, (and of course they are as they are telling you they are).

Bullies own communication channels

The best way to bully someone is to make sure that person can only report to the bully. A regular tactic is to deal with a ‘problem’ by closing reporting lines and ensuring that the individual only communicates with and via the bully so ‘this doesn’t happen again’. Whether it’s reports, emails or any other information channel, it becomes closed down so that the bully can control what gets said or passed on to others. This also means that the bully controls what goes to their reporting line by changing reports, outputs etc to suit what they want to say.

Bullies like to make people feel bad

Often, bullies will make sure that someone is very clear about all the things they have done wrong in a situation. Many of these will be tenuous and uncheckable because ‘someone else told me’ and as few of us like to go to the someone else to check, we never refute them. Some are false and unarguable because they are based on the bully’s authority over the person being bullied e.g. ‘as your manager….’.  By making someone feel bad or inferior, they create dependency on the bully and re-enforce that the bully needs to be obeyed in future.

Bullies make it your fault

‘If only you just did what I said, then this wouldn’t be happening’ is a theme of bullying. It becomes your fault that they are behaving the way they are. If you just complied/did what they said/agreed etc then they wouldn’t be acting this way towards you. So future actions of the bullied are predicated by trying to avoid being bullied again.

Bullies create dependence  on the bully

Some bullies can create situations where the gift of something, which can even be the role, means that someone is beholden to the bully in some way. It could be future attendance at something that you want to go to. It can be the bonus you are working towards. It can be the performance review in organisations where that is totally in the hands of a manager. The more people are beholden, the easier it is for the bully to push them the way that the bully wants.

As a senior manager, the next time a few words come your way about how someone is behaving, you might want to see if it fits any of the above before you write the comments off because you’ve never seen that kind of behaviour from them before.

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