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Stand Up to the Workplace Bully


Office Bullies Survive through Political Skills

Up to a third of American workers have been bullied on the job. Half have witnessed bullying, so that third isn’t just a matter of the victims’ perceptions. Besides being morally repugnant, bullying lowers morale and increases the odds of good workers quitting, not to mention the likelihood of a company getting sued. How in the world, then, do bullies keep their jobs, and sometimes move up the management chain?

A journal article says, “The media is inundated with… stories of individuals who have become overwhelmed by their coworkers and bosses who mistreat them and resorted to physical, even deadly, action because they feel they have little recourse. Organizations would do well to proactively address these issues.” The problem is, “It could be possible that individuals who are perceived as bullies are seen by many as charming and friendly…”

According to the article, a team of researchers asked the employees at a mental health facility in the Northwestern U.S. to identify the bullies in their organization. The study was performed by a team led by Darren Treadway of the Dept. of Organization and Human Resources at State Univ. of New York at Buffalo, and included researchers in Germany and China. They used a confidential survey and ended up with needed data on two-thirds of the workers. Bullying behavior was defined as “engaging in unfair criticisms of co-workers, withholding work-related information, excluding someone from social interactions, and/or attempting to intimidate others.”

The researchers also asked everyone to rate their own political skill using statements like:

  • “I am particularly good at sensing the motivations and hidden agendas of others.”
  • “I always seem to instinctively know the right things to say and do to influence others.”

Three months later, company performance evaluations were done. On average, there was no connection between bullying and performance ratings, or between political skills and the ratings.

Stop right there. This tells us two things. First, these bullies’ bosses either did not realize those employees were bullies or didn’t care. Second, the bosses either didn’t consider political skills important, or they didn’t recognize people’s political skills well. In other words, maybe they had difficulty recognizing they were being manipulated by some people.

Put these ideas together, and a powerful picture emerges. In fact, here it is:

If a bully was lousy at office politics (the blue line), their bullying was recognized and hurt their performance ratings. But if they were good at it (the red line), they could intimidate peers into doing things that helped them look good while playing sweet and nice with their bosses, so their performance ratings went up. Smart bullies may know when, where, and whom to bully, and cover their tracks so well that their peers and manager don’t find out.

Wow, that is depressing. But it explains what I have seen. Rare is the boss I’ve observed who recognized bullying behavior, much less had the courage to confront it. Some time ago I had a client who did this well, an exception proving the rule. He managed a good balance of sitting in on meetings without butting into the decision-making, and doing so enough that a bully on the team could not hide his behavior. The bully tried to dominate with his voice, made disparaging quips, stated his opinions as facts, and would not let go of them even in face of opposition from the rest of the team. The boss counseled him to the degree the bully realized he was in trouble and sought my advice. To the bully’s credit, he recognized many of the behaviors and the damage they did to himself, but it was too late. He soon disappeared from the roster despite his technical skills.

This individual genuinely intended to help the team and its customers. But something prevented him from expressing himself in a professional manner. In addition, he did not have good political skills, as evident from his behaving badly even when the boss and I as the team coach were present. The journal article says that contrary to popular opinion, research on schoolyard bullies suggests “bullies are not social outcasts incapable of effectively engaging others and thus reduced to lashing out as a means to address their social exclusion. In contrast, bullies are likely ‘skillful manipulators’ that are not only more capable of processing social information, but more effective in using that information to their own benefit.”

Much of our information on bullies comes from work on children simply because adult bullies have not been studied much. Another statement from the journal article seems true of the workplace bullies I have known, that there are two basic types: reactive, who simply don’t handle anger well, and proactive, those who “view aggression as an appropriate and effective mechanism for achieving their own personal goals.” The reactives are more likely to get caught by the boss, I think. The proactives would be the ones with political skills. The Treadway team’s article quotes a 2007 theoretical work in which “leader bullying was described as ‘strategically selected tactics of influence by leaders designed to convey a particular image and place targets in a submissive, powerless position whereby they are more easily influenced and controlled, in order to achieve personal and/or organizational objectives.’”

The academics suggest training employees “to identify and manage bullying behaviors” and the inclusion of civility measures in performance evaluations. But these suggestions require the boss to know bullying is happening. I can think of only one way to fix that. Along with many other reasons for using 360-degree evaluations, letting team members anonymously rate the performance of their teammates using civility measures seems the only effective way to get around a charming bully’s political skills.

Source: Treadway, D., et al. (2013), “Political Skill and the Job Performance of Bullies,” Journal of Managerial Psychology 28(3): 273.

Workplace Bullies May Become Employers’ Legal Problems

After a period in which the U.S. media focused on schoolyard bullies, I was glad to see a growing awareness of what those playground pugilists may grow up to be: abusive bosses. Prof. David Yamada and a growing chorus of researchers are out to make workplace emotional abuse illegal in the Unites States. Among a host of other good reasons, Yamada wants to save lives.

He is a law professor at Suffolk Univ. in Boston and director of The New Workplace Institute. According to a version of his proposed law, “Between 37 and 59 percent of employees directly experience health-endangering workplace bullying, abuse, and harassment, and this mistreatment is approximately four times more prevalent than sexual harassment alone.” Posts on his blog, Minding the Workplace, report on two suicides apparently resulting from this kind of abuse. One describes the death of an academic journal editor after alleged bullying by his boss, detailed by The Hook, a weekly newspaper.

Versions of Yamada’s bill were introduced in at least 15 states and passed by two senates. Though that’s as far as they have gotten, I hope the United States will eventually catch up to countries like France and Sweden that have national laws against workplace bullies.

Yamada described the law in a speech at the Univ. of Augsburg. The law would make it illegal for an employer to “subject an employee to an abusive work environment” with conduct such as “derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets; verbal or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature; the sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance; or attempts to exploit an employee’s known psychological or physical vulnerability.” To break the law, the bully must have intended “to cause pain, injury, or distress” and have caused mental or physical damage. Though aimed at repeated abuse, it says a single very bad example could be enough.

If this language sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because much of it is taken directly from sexual harassment laws. Because of those, you may think bullying is already illegal, but Yamada makes the case that existing laws do not cover general abuse. For example, if the insults mentioned above related to your gender or religion, they might break anti-discrimination laws. Otherwise, almost anything goes legally.

Managers should note that as with discrimination laws, not only the abuser but also their employer could be sued if this law passed in your state. A court could order an employer to take a number of actions including firing the bully, and paying back pay to a victim who quits because of the abuse. Employers would have some protections, again modeled on sexual harassment law. If the employer tried to fix the problem, or had a system to address it that the victim did not use, that would be a valid defense. Damages for emotional distress would be limited to $25,000, and punitive damages would not be allowed. The law also would include defenses to protect the employer from false claims, for example from a worker fired for other, valid reasons.

I suspect some readers will come up with reasonable objections along the lines of employer rights and the idea that the victim could just quit. I understand the thinking, but recognize the exact same arguments were made against sexual harassment laws years ago and racial discrimination laws before that.

How sad that we have to even consider resorting to laws to make some managers play nice. I recall sitting stunned in a Seattle Chamber of Commerce committee meeting years ago after the head of a builder’s association argued against better workplace safety rules because “nobody wants their people to get hurt.” His argument was logical, based not only on moral grounds but financial ones. I was stunned because there is massive evidence that wanting to save money in the short term regularly stops employers from investing in long-term savings through problem prevention. As evidence I present recent mining disasters, BP’s little problem in the Gulf of Mexico, and thousands of other citations in the public record. My teamwork training and coaching services could have saved almost every business team in the United States many times more money than my services cost, yet I always had room for more clients.

If you are a manager and know of someone causing strife on your staff, you already have a host of reasons to confront the behavior. Yamada writes, “there is strong consensus that bullying and related behaviors can be very costly for employers. These factors include:

  • “Reduced productivity
  • “Reduced employee loyalty
  • “Increased absenteeism and related costs of medical premiums, workers’ compensation, and disability payments
  • “Increased attrition and related costs of hiring and training
  • “Greater risk of employee lawsuits, even in the absence of specific legal protections…”

The day is probably coming when ignoring the problem becomes yet another way to beg for a lawsuit. More importantly, any ethics book will tell you ignoring it is wrong, especially when suicide is a possible outcome.

Are you the type of person who gets people upset but believes “in telling the truth straight out, and if they can’t handle it, that’s their problem?” Or who enjoys insult humor and practical jokes at work? Or curses a lot more than your co-workers do? As with sexual harassment, it doesn’t matter whether you think your behavior is abusive. What matters is whether the other person does. Start looking inside yourself now, because you don’t want a judge doing it for you later.

Sources: Papers from David Yamada (

  • “Crafting an American Legal Response to Workplace Bullying: The Healthy Workplace Bill”
  • “Is There a ‘Business Case’ for Workplace Bullying Legislation?”
  • “Massachusetts Senate Bill No. 699” (2009-10 Session)
  • “Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment”

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