10 Surprising Reasons Why Bullies Succeed at Work
Bullying, defined as overly aggressive, prolonged behavior that is harmful to the victim, is unfortunately very common in our society. From the time we are children, we usually experience bullying in the form of schoolyard taunts, stolen lunch money, exclusive cliques, and even physical abuse that makes us feel left out or miserable. Though many people like to believe that bullies grow out of their behavior when they get out of school, the truth is, bullying is still an active force in adult interactions. From ‘mean girls’ who exclude others at the country club to gym ‘meatheads’ who intimidate newbies into never coming back, bullying still has the ability to negatively impact our lives.
One of the places where bullying tends to run rampant is in the workplace. As careers become more demanding and expectations continuously rise for more and better production, bullies have found a way to succeed at the expense of colleagues and those they manage. Through intimidation, taking credit for work they do not do, threats, gossip, and a number of other means, bullies seem to find a way to succeed that can often baffle others. Bullies often thrive because others simply don’t have enough courage to stand up to them. They also tend to gather a ‘gang’ around them that helps facilitate their mistreatment of others. Whether in large businesses or small, bullies have found a way to make their tactics work. Here are the top ten surprising reasons why bullies still experience success in the workplace.
10They Are Often in Positions of Power
Many bullies succeed simply because there is no one above them to shut them down. Whether bullies tend to play down their aggressive nature as they move up the corporate ladder or have simply found organizations that reward this type of behavior, the truth is approximately 72% of bullies are bosses. When bullies are the ones in power, they have free reign to intimidate, abuse, and wreak havoc on their employees without ever having to answer to anyone. The only way for miserable workers to do anything about the situation is to quit, which many aren’t ready to do. Bullies prey on the weak, and many weak employees would rather endure a bad situation than take a chance on the unknown.
Even if the bullies are not the owners of the company or the main managers, many of them still have enough power to be autonomous. This often happens in larger companies with multiple locations. The general managers and owners are in one location and the branches are being run by bullies who are given the power to run their locations as they choose. Because the owners are not exposed to their behavior or leadership style, they are often not aware that bullying occurs. They only see the results that come from the bullying, which are often positive despite the terrible work environment they create. The location managers are the main point of contact for business owners, and those who work under them don’t feel they can bring up the bullying to higher management.
9Bullying is Often Rewarded
When we look at the aggression, intimidation, and belittling that come with bullying, we often find it hard to believe that this type of behavior is rewarded in the workplace. However, many companies, especially those that put an emphasis on performance, often endorse bullying because it can produce results. A bully can show high sales numbers and display other results that are valued by management. They achieve these results because they are manipulative and don’t have the normal regard for others that might lead to less aggressive tactics. While their co-workers may show empathy and listening skills, the bully puts these aside in favor of making the sale or getting the project done at any cost.
If an organization does not look more in-depth into an employee’s performance and focuses solely on results, they’re giving the bully permission to achieve those results in any way he or she sees fit. Managers and owners should instead look at each employee from many angles. This includes customer service reviews, evaluations from co-workers, and overall impact on the work atmosphere. Owners should avoid losing touch with what is going on with their remote locations by frequently visiting and talking with other team members. When managers stop putting the main focus on results, the bullies stop looking like superstars. Another benefit is that other employees may begin stepping forward to tell the true story of the bullies when they see that they are no longer the darlings of the office.
8Bullying Can Often Be Subtle
Sometimes, workplace bullying is not rewarded or endorsed by management—it’s simply not recognized. How could the damaging practice of bullying go unnoticed? One reason is that managers are not around the bullies on a regular basis due to multiple locations or frequent travel. However, another more common explanation is that bullying is often much more subtle than the shoving into locker behavior we all remember from high school. Bullying can be a slow process of emotional manipulation that is often obvious only to the victim or victims. It can involve behaviors like repeatedly lying about workplace incidents or about who is responsible for work, as well as ignoring certain team members and excluding them from team events or meetings. Other subtle forms of bullying include constantly criticizing another employee’s work, withholding information others need to perform their jobs, and pitting employees against each other.
This type of subtle bullying is not only overlooked by management, but it can also be invisible to other employees. They may not believe their co-workers who bring up the bullying behavior, which makes them even less likely to speak up in the future. The victims themselves may even begin to doubt themselves, which can lead to further anxiety and even depression. Though subtle bullying is often the tactic used by female bullies in the workplace, there are plenty of men who utilize these tools as well. Any type of management, whether subtle or overt, need to be addressed in a workplace policy regarding bullying.
7Victims Tend Not to Speak Up
Bullies succeed in the workplace the same way they have succeeded in schools, colleges, and locker rooms—by victims not speaking up against them. It’s rare that bullies target strong-willed employees who will stand up to them and report them to management. A proven bully tactic is to choose victims who are shy, have low self-esteem, or who are easily intimidated. In the workplace, this may mean they routinely single out new employees, younger employees, or employees who are in more introverted roles such as IT or accounting. These types of personalities may even make attempts to get along with the bully, no matter what his or her behavior, in the hope that being friendly will make the aggressor go away. This can make the matter even worse.
In addition to targeting individuals who are likely to keep to themselves, bullies also tend to show others what will happen if they try to stand up for their bullied coworkers. They may target a supporter early on and begin bullying him or her too just to teach everyone else a lesson. As most people prefer to get their work done and not make waves, they’re unlikely to invoke the wrath of the bully by siding with the victim or reporting the behavior. All of this adds up to the main reason why bullies act the way they do: because they can. Bullying behavior is allowed to continue simply because no one does anything to stop it.
6Those Who Don’t Put Up With Bullying Tend to Leave
In today’s workplace, there are plenty of strong-willed individuals who are committed to a fair and empowering workplace. These are the types of personalities who would never allow themselves to be bullied and who would never dream of bullying anyone else. If this is the case, then why don’t these employees put a stop to the behavior when they see it? The answer is that when these types of workers see bullying in action, and especially when they see management do nothing about it, they respond by finding new jobs. We often make the mistake of thinking there are only two types of people in the workplace: those who bully and those who are bullied. However, the vast majority of employees fall into a different category altogether: those who want nothing to do with bullying. These individuals would rather remove themselves from the situation and work in an environment that is free from bullying behavior.
When management puts up with bullies or turns a blind eye to the behavior, they are not just hurting the victims. They are also creating an environment that their best employees will feel uncomfortable and end up leaving. Workplaces that condone bullying are often filled with a high percentage of bullies and victims, neither of which are good for morale or for the success of the business no matter how many short-term results bullies can attain.
5Bullies Often Come Across as Friendly and Charming
Do you think of bullies as big ogres who everyone tries to avoid? While this might be the case in a lot of school bullying, workplace bullies are quite a bit different. One of the reasons they can be so successful at work is because they often come across as some of the most friendly and charming members of the team. With these personality traits, they can easily reel in new employees who are not wise to their ways yet and also manipulate management. It’s easy to spot a bully who is pushing people around in the lunch room or yelling at subordinates during meetings, but it’s much more difficult to pinpoint them when you see them laughing, making friends, and giving customers a hearty handshake.
Victims of these types of bullies are often not believed when they try to bring up the abuse to management or co-workers. Because of their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type personalities, they are often completely different people around their victims and everyone else and are very adept at hiding their dark natures. In fact, they may only reveal their bullying nature to one or two people they view as weak or that they’re ‘out to get’ in an organization. Because they tend to pick on those who are not as socially adept as they are, they can often be quite convincing when denying their bad behavior. Developing a company culture where everyone feels respected and listened to is the best way to combat this type of bullying. Not only will victims feel more comfortable speaking up, but bullies won’t have the opportunity to thrive and may find other places to work.
4Bullies Can Achieve Results
Though they might be going about it the wrong way, bullies tend to be hard workers who don’t mind putting in extra hours or sacrificing outside relationships or activities to get ahead at work. Because of their single-minded focus on success, many bullies can achieve some pretty spectacular results. If management doesn’t care about the trail of broken spirits and hurt relationships the bullies leave in their wake, they will often praise the bully instead of chastising him or her for his methods. While most people view bullies as the most disliked people in any situation, the truth is that bullies are usually the most hated AND the most well-liked people on a team. Supervisors and sometimes even other team members appreciate and even admire them for the results they produce, while victims are terrified of the treatment they endure from them.
It’s important for every organization to look deeper into employee evaluations and not just focus results or achievements. While the outcome of actions is important, the actual actions themselves usually tell the greater story. While many bullies can often achieve some impressive short-term results, these often fade over time as they poison the work environment and as more team members recognize them for what they are. They can also be toxic to returning customers who start seeing behind the façade. Involved managers are usually better at spotting these over-achieving bullies than those who spend most of their time shut inside an office or who work remotely. A hands-on management team can get involved early and shut the behavior down for the good of the company.
3 Bullying Can Be Contagious
We all like to think that if we come into contact with a bully, we’ll either report him or stand up to him—or at least remove ourselves from the situation. However, one of the reasons bullying is so insidious is because the behavior is often quite contagious. Not only do people NOT stand up for the victims, but they often start acting like the bully themselves. Humans can be ‘pack’ animals, and bullying is a ‘pack’ behavior. Those who are likely to adopt pack behavior are those who are insecure and never matured from the adolescent days when they saw the bully as ‘cool.’ To them, bullies are strong and in control. Because they feel like they are not, they often mistakenly believe that acting like the bully will make them feel more accomplished.
This can happen with observers of the bullying behavior, or even with the victims of the behavior themselves. Contagious bullying is especially common in workplaces where the bullies are frequently rewarded by management for their achievements. Those employees who feel like they are not getting ahead or not being recognized equate ‘success’ with ‘bullying’, and may try on this new behavior for size. Once the epidemic of bullying starts in an organization, it can be very difficult to stop it. That’s why it’s important to identify the offending behavior as early as possible, and put an end to it before others get the impression it’s ok.
2Bullies Are Skilled Manipulators
The best employees in any organization are empathetic, team players who are more concerned with the good of the team than they are about any personal accomplishment. These individuals are the glue that holds an organization together, though they sometimes don’t get the recognition they deserve. Bullies, on the other hand, are strategic and manipulative and much more concerned with their own self-interest than that of the team. What does this mean? It usually means that they’ll do anything they see fit to get ahead without much concern for how it hurts others. They’ll stomp all over the best employees in the company on their road to the top, and they won’t stop to think twice about it.
Bullies tend to focus on the people who have the most power in their organization. They pay attention to the things that matter to them, their personalities, and how they react to different situations. Then they use this information to get on their good side, to compliment them, and to gain favor. It’s not in the least bit genuine, but it often works because bullies have the capacity to seem charming and sincere. Once bullies have management or owners wrapped around their little fingers, they can write their own ticket within the company regardless of how they are treating their co-workers. By the time owners or managers catch on to the duplicitous behavior—if they ever do—the damage has usually already been done.
1 Managers May Be Afraid of Bullies
When it comes down to it, managers and leaders are the same as the rest of us. This often means that they’re just as afraid of conflict or bullying behavior as the people they manage. The situation becomes even more complicated if the manager or owner is the one who hired the bully in the first place. In addition to their fear of confronting a strong-willed individual, they might also fear embarrassment over admitting that they made a big hiring mistake. They may try to turn a blind eye to the behavior in the hopes that it will get better or just go away.
Unfortunately, when a manager is afraid of the bully, the situation can really get out of control. Bullies thrive on power, and knowing that they have power over a superior is one of the most intoxicating things to them. This empowerment leads to more bullying behavior, and often infects the entire work environment with a toxic vibe that is beneficial to no one. Shutting down a bully early is key. Sometimes, this means also getting rid of enabling managers who don’t know how to stand up to them. Hiring and empowering managers who handle conflict effectively and who have a zero-tolerance attitude toward negative behaviors like intimidation, gossip, and manipulation are the best defense against bullies.
Have you ever been a victim of bullying in the workplace or have you experienced it happening? Though all of us would like to believe that bullies grew out of their behavior once they graduated high school, the truth is that bullies still exist in adulthood. Their tactics may evolve and they may be much more difficult to spot, but this only makes them more dangerous. For those who are the victims of bullies, it’s important for them to stand up and speak out. If they are not treated with respect by their managers, it’s usually a good idea to look for a new job with a healthier environment.
For managers and business owners, it’s vital to be hands-on and aware of what is going on in their place of employment. Have a good working relationship with everyone on your team, and make sure they know it’s a safe environment to speak up about negative behavior they may witness or be a victim of. Identify bullies early on, and immediately make it clear that this behavior is not acceptable. Though managers may initially think that the strong achievement is worth a little bit of in-office intimidation, they will usually find that the toxic environment that results from bullying is not worth it in the long run.