According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35% of the American workforce (or 53.5 million people) has directly experienced bullying or  “repeated mistreatment by one or more employees that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or sabotage of work performance”.

While an additional 15% said they have witnessed bullying at work. Approximately 72% of those bullies are bosses.

“Bullying in the workplace is similar to the school playground in that people are being demeaned or exploited,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job. “But in the office, bullying is far more subversive and challenging to overcome, as these grown bullies are adept at finding non-assertive victims and staying under the radar.

Types of Bullying Bosses

Andy Teach, author of From Graduation to Corporation, and host of the YouTube channel FromGradToCorp, says there is “a lot of bullying by bosses that goes on in the workplace—and the more years you work, the greater chance you have of encountering it.” 

He further says that these are probably the same people who bullied their classmates in the schoolyard. “They have a need to push people around to get their way and if no one stood up to them in school, then they have no reason to stop their bullying now in the business world.”

Taylor explains that there are different types of “bullying bosses.” 

On the more extreme end of the spectrum, there are those who throw tirades and intimidate employees continuously; some are even guilty of sexual harassment, she says. “Their behaviour is nefarious enough to warrant termination and legal ramifications.” At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find the covert bully; the much more rampant, fear-provoking boss, who acts out episodically. 

On Monday he’s Mr. Nice Guy and on Tuesday he’s Attila the Hun. These bosses with bullying tendencies are masters at pushing you to the limit without giving you enough fodder to pursue legal action. For example, they may attempt to disguise their demeaning and discourteous behaviour with levity, saying, ‘Oh, I was just joking,’ or ‘You’re too sensitive. You know you’re doing a great job”.

Teach agrees that there are many ways in which a boss or supervisor can bully his or her staff. He says, “It could be by yelling at them if the employee doesn’t please the boss. It could be by constantly threatening them; always telling the employee that their job is at stake. It could be by embarrassing them by constantly criticising them in front of their co-workers. It could be by putting the employee in an uncomfortable position; giving them an order that puts the employee’s job or reputation in jeopardy. And sometimes bullying can be less obvious. The bullying boss may simply ignore the employee or not include them in meetings anymore.”

Common Tactics Of Bully Bosses

Gary Namie, PhD, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, has outlined 25 common tactics used by bullies, as reported by targeted victims. These tactics include falsely accusing individuals of errors, displaying nonverbal intimidation through staring and glaring, discounting their thoughts or feelings in meetings, and using silent treatment to isolate them from others. 

Bullies may also exhibit mood swings, make up arbitrary rules, criticise relentlessly, spread rumours or gossip, and encourage others to turn against the targeted person.

Among the tactics identified by Namie, bullies often single out individuals, publicly display inappropriate behaviour, steal credit for their work, abuse the evaluation process by lying about their performance, and retaliate after a complaint is filed. They may also make verbal insults based on various factors such as gender, race, or disability, assign undesirable tasks as punishment, and sabotage their contributions to team goals or projects.

These behaviours create toxic work environments and have severe consequences on victims’ mental and physical well-being. Recognizing these tactics is crucial for identifying and addressing workplace bullying effectively. Employers must take proactive measures to prevent and address bullying behaviours to ensure a safe and respectful workplace for all employees.

Employers are responsible for all work conditions and the assignment of workers to supervisors,” Namie says. “So, employers can stop workplace bullying if they wanted to. No laws yet compel action or policies, so all employer actions would be voluntary.” The bottom line is that if you’re being bullied at work, and your employer isn’t doing anything about it, “you owe it to yourself to do what you can to try and stop it.” 

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Teach adds. “If you fail, you should give yourself credit for at least trying to improve the situation. At that point, you have the choice to stay or leave. You should make the decision that’s best for you.”

Taylor agrees. She says “Your best option is to decide whether you want to manage up with your bully boss or bow out.” What is your tolerance level, and what are the pros and cons of the job overall? “You must weigh the level of discomfort with your ability to be assertive, and also take a hard look at the big picture.

Anne Kreamer, author of “It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace“, emphasises the detrimental impact of workplace bullying on employees’ health and well-being. She says, “Bullies suck the air out of offices, destroying camaraderie, robbing work of normal satisfactions.” 

Strategies for Managing Bully Bosses

An earlier online study by the Workplace Bullying Institute delved into the repercussions of workplace bullying on the targets’ health. Through an online survey, the institute explored the various repercussions experienced by those subjected to bullying in the workplace. The findings reveal a disturbing trend, with a significant portion of respondents reporting adverse health effects directly linked to their experiences of being bullied.

After requesting respondents to complete a 33-item symptoms checklist, the WBI discovered the top five health issues among those subjected to workplace bullying: anxiety (76%), loss of concentration (71%), disrupted sleep (71%), hypervigilance symptoms (60%), and stress headaches (55%).

Workplace bullying by a boss can have many negative effects on an employee,” adds Teach. “It could severely impact the employee’s morale so much so that the employee doesn’t even want to come in to work anymore. Bullying can bring on depression, self-doubt, and can lower an employee’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, these characteristics can carry over to an employee’s personal life, as well. If we’re depressed at work then there’s a good chance we’ll be depressed at home, too. It’s unfortunate that bullying bosses either don’t know or don’t care how much of a negative impact they have on their employees.”

In dealing with a bully of the “manageable variety,” with episodic flare-ups, versus a lawsuit-worthy bully, Taylor and Teach offer strategies for managing up:

When dealing with a manageable bully in the workplace, it’s important to act swiftly and decisively. Paying attention to early warning signs of your boss’s behaviour shifting towards bullying can help you intervene effectively before the situation escalates. 

Setting clear boundaries is crucial to prevent unreasonable demands or discourteous treatment, ensuring that you maintain control over your work environment. Seeking advice from trusted colleagues can provide valuable insights and support, especially if you’re feeling isolated in your experience of bullying.

Whether it’s noticing increased aggression, hostility, or unreasonable demands during stressful situations, being proactive in addressing these warning signs can prevent further escalation and create a healthier work environment.

Additionally, acknowledging and reinforcing positive behaviour from your boss can help to encourage respectful interactions and discourage further bullying tendencies. By clearly communicating your limits and expectations, you assert your dignity and self-respect. Refusing to tolerate disrespectful behaviour sends a strong message to your boss that such conduct is unacceptable, fostering a more respectful and equitable relationship.

Leading by example by demonstrating professionalism and respect in all interactions can subtly influence your boss’s behaviour over time. By consistently maintaining a respectful demeanour, you create a culture of mutual respect and professionalism within your team or department. Your behaviour can influence your boss and colleagues to adopt similar attitudes, fostering a more positive and respectful work environment.

However, if the situation worsens or becomes abusive, it’s important to escalate the issue to Human Resources for assistance and support. Seeking help from coworkers, managers, or external resources may also be necessary to address the issue effectively and ensure a safe and respectful work environment for all employees.

Namie cautions against confronting the boss directly, stating that it’s “rarely effective and ill-advised.” In early 2012, the WBI surveyed 1,598 individuals familiar with workplace bullying to assess the effectiveness of various strategies in stopping bullying behaviours.

Despite the challenges posed by bully bosses, employees can employ various strategies to manage and mitigate bullying behaviour. Taylor advises employees to intervene early and set boundaries to prevent escalation.

She says, “Being able to say ‘no’ can be quite liberating, and might even earn you some respect from your bully boss.” Positive reinforcement and leading by example can also influence a bully boss’s behaviour positively.

While confronting a bully boss directly may not always be effective, employees have various avenues for recourse, including filing formal complaints, seeking union intervention, or even legal action. 

Namie notes that organisational responses to workplace bullying remain inadequate, with few employers taking proactive measures to address the issue. Andy Teach adds, “If your boss gets results, HR may overlook their bullying tactics.

Despite its prevalence, few employers take proactive steps to address the problem effectively. This lack of accountability further compounds the challenges employees face in addressing workplace bullying. Ultimately, employees must assess their tolerance levels and weigh the pros and cons of their job situation before deciding on a course of action.

Namie asserts, “Employers are responsible for all work conditions and the assignment of workers to supervisors,” highlighting the potential for employers to curb workplace bullying through voluntary actions, as no existing laws mandate such measures. Despite 68% of executives acknowledging workplace bullying as a significant issue, a mere 5.5% of organisations are actively addressing it.

In response to unaddressed workplace bullying, Teach underscores the importance of taking action, stating, “You owe it to yourself to do what you can to try and stop it.” Even if unsuccessful, attempting to improve the situation warrants acknowledgement. Ultimately, individuals facing workplace bullying must weigh their options, as Taylor suggests, deciding whether to manage up with the bully boss or exit the situation. 

Assessing one’s tolerance level and considering the overall pros and cons of the job are essential steps. Taylor emphasises the need to evaluate the discomfort level against the ability to assert oneself, while also considering the broader context.

Workplace bullying poses significant challenges to employees’ well-being and organisational culture, with bullying bosses perpetuating cycles of fear and intimidation.

However, by recognizing bullying tactics, implementing effective strategies, and seeking support when needed, employees can assert their rights and create healthier work environments.

Organisations must also take proactive steps to address workplace bullying and foster cultures of respect and inclusivity. Only through collective efforts can we combat workplace bullying and create environments where all employees feel safe, valued, and empowered.

Sources: Forbes, The Economic Times, Fortune

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Feature Image designed by Saudamini Seth

Find the blogger: Katyayani Joshi

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