Work Bullies

Work bullies can ruin a culture, destroy productivity and make your life — and those of everyone else they target — miserable.

And it’s not just bullying bosses who are the problem. Co-workers and employees also use bullying behavior, which creates a hostile workplace.

Excluding lethal weapons, here are the top dozen techniques bullies use to ruin a workplace.

-Yelling, physical threats and throwing things. This in-your-face method makes targets think actual physical attacks will follow.

-Verbal abuse, emotional intimidation and personal insults in private and public. This includes put-downs and demeaning, rude or cruel comments.

-Harassment based on race, religion, gender and physical attributes. Sexual contact, lewd suggestions, name-calling, teasing and overtly nasty personal jokes. Stealthy bullies often follow their put-downs or threats by laughing and saying “I was just kidding” to make it hard for their targets to fight back.

-Backstabbing, spreading rumors, manipulating, lying, distorting, hypocrisy and exposing your personal problems and performance mistakes. Repeated character assassination is another favorite technique.

-Taking the credit for the work of others. Never accepting blame, but instead spreading the blame to blameless employees. Withholding information and then cutting targets down for failing in a task because they didn’t know the crucial information.

-Anonymous attacks and cyber-bullying — flaming e-mails, personal innuendos, threats and porn. Invading the personal space and privacy of targets by rummaging through desks, listening to phone calls, asking personal questions and eating their food.

-Hypersensitive over-reactions, throwing tantrums. Bullies want to train others to walk on eggshells, back off in order to avoid a scene or beg forgiveness as if they really did something wrong.

-Dishonest evaluations, through praising and promoting favorites and destroying the careers of targets.

-Demeaning meetings: yelling, pointing fingers, interrupting, ignoring, derisive laughter or snorts, and nonverbal comments behind targets’ backs, such as rude noises, facial gestures, answering a phone or text messaging, or working on a computer.

-Forming cliques and ganging up to harass and demean. Perpetuating turf wars about budgets, hiring, etc.

-Micromanaging everything. Bullies make it clear they believe other people are so stupid and incompetent that the bully has to do everything to make sure it’s done right.

-Managing in a panic. Waiting until the last minute so everyone moves from crisis to crisis. Making every task a matter of life or death, so people are continually pressured.

Most bullies use combinations of these methods. The relentless application of these techniques reinforces humiliation, pain and fear. It can make the targets feel helpless and that the situation is hopeless.

We’ve all seen the effects of bullies and the hostile workplaces they create. Teamwork, productivity, responsibility, efficiency, creativity and reasonable risk-taking decrease. Promotions are based on sucking up to difficult people, not on merit. The best people leave as soon as they can.

Your operational system may look wonderful on paper, but the wrong people in the wrong culture always can find ways to thwart it. Your pipeline leaks money and profits plummet. It’s possible to turn these terrible situations around. But it takes time, perseverance and processes tailored for each specific situation. You also need a leader dedicated to wiping out these behaviors.

A common mistake in dealing with bullies is trying to educate, explain, understand, accept, forgive, beg, bribe, ignore, reason with or appease them. These approaches won’t convert dedicated bullies into reasonable, civil and professional people. These approaches only stop people who aren’t really bullies, but have behaved badly one time.

Determined bullies don’t take your understanding and acquiescing as kindness. They take your giving in as weakness and an invitation to abuse you more. Bullies bully repeatedly and without real remorse. They might appear to apologize sincerely, but you should accept only behavioral change, not good acting.

The best way to stop a bully is to stand up to them. Expose and isolate them. Or catch them doing something outrageous or illegal in front of witnesses.

LEICHTLING is a Denver-based leadership adviser. Contact him at

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