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INSIGHT

Office bullies are bad, really

By Steve M. Cohen  bio

First it was labeled a schoolyard problem, then a big issue throughout schools and colleges. Then bullying was discovered in the workplace. First it was overbearing owners and managers. Then we discovered that it was also possible for employees to bully other employees.

Don’t misunderstand me; these are serious and ongoing problems. Bullying in one of its many forms can destroy lives. Yet it’s important to realize this didn’t start yesterday or this morning. Ultimately, human nature is the problem and it hasn’t changed dramatically in many, many years. I don’t expect that to change soon.

But knowing this might help you be more prepared when you encounter bullying, especially in its more virulent or subtle forms. As a manager, it’s very likely that you will.

A 2011 study from CareerBuilder found that more than one in four workers reported having felt bullied in their workplace. The majority of these workers did not confront or report the bullying, which is part of the problem. In many ways, this lack of communication is understandable. In dealing with a bully, some find that they are attacked in various ways, ranging from attacks on social media to physical assaults.

Bullying can take many forms, but rather than summarize an endless list of symptoms, I’d like to discuss some commonalities, at least briefly. Bullies share some things in common, whether they’re a psychopathic backstabber who seems to enjoy causing pain in others or “simply” someone who “must” have their way, even on inconsequential issues.

Here are some quick thoughts you might keep in mind:

  • Look for sadistic tendencies. A bully may not be someone who harms small animals or another relatively well-known metric. He or she may simply be someone who prefers to communicate and motivate through fear rather than respect, someone who “likes to see people squirm.” Many times, their criticism is geared to destroy, not to correct and build improvement. Think of someone who consistently uses rough humor against a fellow worker. He or she is not “just” joking, no matter what they say.
  • Although some bullies are less articulate than their peers (often a reason they have anger), other bullies are excellent at presenting themselves well, often coming across as very pleasant, glib people. One telltale sign is that they are often especially glib with those who have some power over them, and far less congenial with those over whom they have power or whom they perceive as their peers, whom they may see only as competitors.
  • A lack of empathy and a high level of self-focus, even narcissism is not uncommon. Although the psychology of bullies varies greatly, some find it difficult to empathize with others, especially if it’s a group or individual they consider as different from themselves.

These may be extreme examples, and it’s important to remember more subtle cases, too. Teasing that’s a little meaner than usual can be an example. So, too, can racial or sexual harassment, even if the bully works in an environment where it’s tolerated.

It’s also important to remember that bullies have often been victims of bullying, and most of us are capable of bully behavior given the right—or wrong—situation. That is a reason why bullying to some degree is so prevalent. Many of us are capable of overly forceful, thoughtless behavior under certain circumstances.

This is actually a point where managers can gain an advantage, however. Most of the time, you want to concern yourself with a pattern, not a single episode or even series of isolated events. Bullies will generally continue to bully until they receive a firm, irrevocable “stop!”

Bullying is difficult to deal with. It takes many forms and a “good” bully can make it especially difficult for a manager to correct or even document the problem. Ultimately, your best weapons are hard work and some good luck.


Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC is President/Partner of Labor Management Advisory Group, Inc. and HR Solutions: On-Call, both based in Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit www.laborgroup.com or call (913) 927-0229.


The above information is shared by a guest contributor and does not necessarily reflect the views of Medical Office Manager.

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