A lot has been written around the workplace bully.
One of the most prolific researchers was the late Tim Field who shared his findings here.
He carried out fairly extensive research into how the bully operates in the workplace and it is quite an eye-opener.
His premise is: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, bully.
In short, he asserted that bullies actually aren’t all that capable in terms of what they claim about their talents, and are envious of those who achieve from a position of natural talent and honesty.
This quite different from what is taught at school. That bullies choose obvious targets, the weak, perhaps a person with a disadvantage, either social or physical.
At school, bullies often act in groups rather than alone, and have a single imperative. The cliché is that a target (the victim) is positioned to provide the bully with a kind of ‘supply’ whether that supply is something tangible such as bus money, or an intangible such as to make the victim feel shame for entertainment.
This is not always so for the workplace bully, since the social and economic ladder is much more difficult to climb. The workplace bully shuns collectivising, and prefers the divide and conquer ethos.
Here, I am not talking about ‘being bullied’ in the workplace as such. This post is about the bully themselves. Who are they? Why do they bully? Why do they choose to bully when they could just as easily get good results from playing with a straight bat? Why do they lie, when it would be just as easy to tell the truth? Easier, in fact, since there is no trail of deceit to audit.
I think the answer rests in what motivates a bully to begin with. I’m purposefully avoiding the use of the terms sociopath, psychopath and narcissist here because in some ways it forgives the behaviour. Let’s keep it simple.
These people are bullies.
Who knows what their childhoods were like. As adults, their modus operandi is different from the usual work ‘drone’, (as the bully sees them) who seek to pay bills and race home to family life, since that is the core of their world. Warmth, companionship and shared humour are some of the aspects of non- work life normal folk cherish above all.
The bully does not race home in the same way. Those elements hold no value for them —they are ostensibly boring and disposable and cannot be measured by a ‘win’ or a ‘lose’.
Imagine waking up in the morning and seeing everything around you as having a function. People, cell phones, the fridge. All have a function to serve and none are differentiated.
The bully aligns human qualities with those of devices, electronics, cars—basically inanimate objects. In that respect, if they stop working, the bully becomes agitated rather than sympathetically curious. It’s more, “Why doesn’t the fridge light come on anymore? Now I can’t see my veges. Why won’t my device pick up WiFi? Time to chuck it and get a new one. Why won’t my girlfriend just accept my criticisms about her weight? Might be time to get a new one.”
In the modern world of supply, where it seems nothing ever runs out, it’s easy to see how attractive these conditions are for the bully. So what if someone at work couldn’t take your racist jokes and then left. There’ll be someone else to replace them.
At work, these humanless traits transfer easily. The only difference is that the mask must change from nasty to nice since the bully learns that being visible and accountable to different people for different purposes is a tough game to maintain.
Hence, many bullies are chameleons, and even after they are found out, many observers will still claim what a kind and considerate person they seemed. Bullies are great mimics and learn the right things to say and the correct facial expressions to pull depending on the event. They are a mirror.
What a bully wants to know is What Side You Are On. Lots of sane humans tend to live out their lives not worrying so much about sides, teams, competitions, allegiances, loyalties. Point scoring. Most just want an easy work life and to be left alone to do a great job.
Bullies do not value that independence or intrinsic vigour. They are highly dependent, plugged-in and extrinsically motivated. They love to show off to make others feel less important. They enjoy having just so that others are without. In this respect, the world to them is singular and linear, a hierarchy, and there is no room for others’ opinions or successes.
Workplace bullies have allies or enemies. Their allies are people who don’t call them on anything, even when they know they should. The enemies are the people who see through the act or try to avoid contact altogether.
Workplace bullies come to work to stir and cause trouble. Here is an example.
At one workplace in which I worked, one person used most of the classic tactics. It was amazing that no-one really got harmed by any of it but people visibly squirmed whenever they were approached by this person. No-one could put their finger on it, as it was insidious, snakey, sidling-up behaviour. You can’t fire a person for that.
The chatter was always overly friendly and designed for information gathering purposes. It was widely believed that the manager had this bully working as a kind of mole, finding out what the ‘feeling on the ground’ was and whether any staff were thinking of leaving. Always, always about the money.
It made workplace life very uncomfortable and people became hypervigilant. The irony was, it made them want to leave.
The problem with the workplace bully is that often they are very good at their job, or know the ‘speak’ to appear competent. Management overlooks the shitty behaviour because they need that person, or worse, they enjoy having their ego stroked by that person and haven’t see through the veneer of lies.
Why does the bully act like this?
Their entire being must be taken up with the fear of being found out that they are not what they say they are. The answer is of course to be honest about your talents in the first instance, but what if you lack talent but desperately want power?
Bullying is a huge problem in the New Zealand workplace.
It is just exhausting to be around this kind of person and being made to feel like you are being watched and accountable. It’s very hard to stamp out because bullies are clever and know how not to get caught. They also have a ferocious gift for lies and if they do forget the stories they’ve told, they merely back-pedal and reinvent the tale another way. It’s truly a system of lying and smoke-and-mirror corruption.
The real problem, though, is recognition of the problem, and as it stands, bullies tend to get into the top leadership positions, and are often very financially successful. We’ll not move forward on this while the model of the ‘top dog’ is celebrated despite their huge shortcomings in the area of interpersonal workplace relations.
For more information about workplace bullying, have a look at Worksafe’s site here.