Workplace Bully Behaviors:
Hidden Traits

To enjoy a long and successful career, a skilled bully must disguise his true character. To accomplish this, his behaviors must conceal his bullying nature while unfairly exploiting others.

These subtle but powerful tactics are at the heart of his arsenal. They are dangerous because they tend to remain unrecognized. And even if you perceive the subtle pattern of bullying behavior, others probably won’t.

Mental patients in charge

You may conclude that the patients are running the mental hospital. Overwhelming evidence, based on a pattern of bullying revealed by these hidden traits, points to a bully engaged in treacherous behaviors. Yet the executives fuel his growing power, which will ultimately become a threat to their success. In the meantime, you are facing harsh bullying on a daily basis. No sensible person seems to be in charge at your company.

What can you do about it? If you say anything to your co-workers, they’ll look at you like you’re confused, delusional or even paranoid. If you report your suspicions to upper management, they’ll conclude that you’re using underhanded tactics against the bully (the absurdity of this will be lost on those oblivious to the bullying). And if you confront the bully directly, you may be fired.

Hidden bullying traits

There is rarely an easy solution when you’re dealing with a well-established, highly skilled bully, but the initial steps are always the same: study his behaviors and learn to understand him. Only by recognizing his hidden traits will you have any hope of effectively fighting back.

Or maybe you will conclude it is time to check yourself out of the mental hospital before the patients drive you crazy.

Hidden traits:

  1. Charming
  2. Obsessed with image
  3. Distorts truth and reality
  4. Evasive
  5. Plays the victim
  6. Self-righteous
  7. Pompous
  8. Hypocritical
  9. Two-faced
  10. Rumor-monger
  11. Passive-aggressive
  12. Pretends to care

1. Charming

A skilled bully charms others to gain their trust. He exudes warmth and friendship as he smiles and tells jokes and stories, or flatters those around him. He makes you feel important by offering attention and approval.

His charismatic personality provides an excellent disguise, resulting in most people readily accepting the fiction of his good intentions rather than the reality of his self-serving nature. Because of the power of this disguise, charisma in a covert bully often leads to outstanding success, as can be observed with numerous public figures.

2. Obsessed with image

A skilled bully is obsessed with how things appear to others, even to the point of believing that outward image is more important than underlying reality. He knows that to prevent others from discovering the disturbing truth about his character, he must use words to create an image of integrity, teamwork and leadership.

His obsession causes him to overreact to actions or comments that he believes are a threat to his carefully crafted image. For example, he misinterprets a respectful and well-intentioned suggestion about his department as an accusation of managerial incompetence, causing him to erupt in anger.

When you work for an image-obsessed bully, he worries about how your actions might impact his image in the company. This may lead him to make the absurd charge that your behavior, though well within the norms of your workplace culture, somehow tarnished his reputation. Being obsessed with image thus provides a bully with another opportunity to criticize you in order to control you.

3. Distorts truth and reality

A workplace bully never lets the truth stand in his way, but instead creates his own reality, with him as the hero and others as the villains. In this parallel universe, his distortions and deceptions lead to false conclusions, which in turn become recognized as common knowledge. He boldly repeats these fraudulent “facts,” acting astonished that anyone continues to deny their truth. But the only real truth is that he is intentionally misleading others.

Suppresses the truth

A bully misleads people by omitting significant information that would explain the situation and reveal the underlying reality. When you counter with a fact-based explanation, he misstates and belittles your viewpoint.

Presents hearsay as fact

Because facts aren’t on his side, he quotes hearsay as important and authoritative. He misquotes others, or misrepresents their meaning, then claims they support his ideas. Or he manipulates a co-worker into making a critical remark about his opponent, then quotes that remark as “evidence.”

Distorts facts and their meaning

A bully accurately describes the details of an event, but then distorts the interpretation. Perhaps he slips in an inaccurate detail, or innuendo about your motives, that changes everyone’s perception of the event. Or he depicts a conversation with you differently than it occurred, causing others to believe you are confused or self-serving.

A bully’s goal is to create a new reality that puts a positive spin on his behavior and intentions, while implying the worst about the behaviors and intentions of his opponents. This makes him appear reasonable and constructive, while his opponents appear unreasonable and destructive.

4. Evasive

A workplace bully can be very slippery when he needs to avoid the truth at all costs.

Avoids the truth about his behavior

An evasive bully never gives a straight answer about his bullying behavior. He denies his self-serving intentions and acts confused by complaints about his mistreatment of others.

When complaints about his behavior persist, he questions the motives of the complainer. If asked to explain the rationale for his behavior, he angrily refuses, perhaps becoming belligerent. Or he flatly denies the specific charges of bullying, rejecting any facts as fabricated by a vengeful, biased complainer (that is, the target of his bullying).

Alternatively, he justifies his bullying behavior as needed to achieve positive goals, or mischaracterizes his aggressive behavior traits as valid leadership qualities.

Never honest and constructive

An evasive bully is never straightforward, never tells you his hidden agenda and never reveals his innermost desires. He would never consider making an effort to fix a relationship by changing his behavior. If there is an obvious conflict with you, he prevents it from being surfaced and resolved openly, preferring to undermine you behind your back.

Attacks you when you confront him

When you tell a bully face-to-face that his behavior is inappropriate, he tends to minimize your complaints by saying the only problem is with your lack of understanding. In other words, you just don’t comprehend the situation. He may use a more condescending approach by accusing you of being overly sensitive, or by declaring: “You don’t get it, do you?”

Alternatively, he sidesteps your on-target criticism by acting hurt. For example, if you confront a rumor-mongering bully, he tries to make you feel guilty by saying: “I can’t tell you how much it upsets me that you would actually think I spread that nasty rumor about you.”

Shifts the focus to others

An evasive bully asserts that the problem is with others, not himself. By criticizing you, he avoids discussing his own behaviors. Or he accuses you of behaviors far worse than his, saying that you triggered his bad behavior because you created a situation in which he had no choice but to behave the way he did. He may even claim he is the one who is being victimized (another hidden behavior trait).

5. Plays the victim

A bully acts like a victim in order to manipulate others into submitting to his desires. This can be a very effective technique in a company that emphasizes trust, respect, teamwork and fair treatment of others. in effect, he is abusing the virtue of his fellow workers, much like a con man steals from good Samaritans.

When a bully is playing the victim, you may hear statements like these:

“You betrayed my trust in you.”

“You deserted me in my hour of need.”

“You hurt me when you did that.”

“You hurt my feelings when you said that.”

“Go ahead and enjoy yourself. I’ll be okay. I don’t mind.”

“I work really hard for the company. How can you be so selfish?”

“How could you do this to me?”

“I thought I could count on you.”

“I thought we had an understanding.”

“I thought we were friends.”

“You caused my pain, and now you’re making it worse.”

“Why are you ruining it for me?”

“Don’t you want to help me succeed instead of standing in my way?”

Here are a few ways a workplace bully plays a victim:

Exaggerates the impact of your actions on him

He claims your actions caused him significant pain and suffering, and that you don’t care what happens to him. His intention is to make you feel guilty. His hidden message: “Save me from my pain by doing what I want.”

Focuses on past and future victimization

He repeatedly mentions your past actions that hurt him, particularly when he wants to manipulate you into going along with his plans. He never seems to get over things; even long after the event occurred, he reminds you of the pain you caused him. And he makes it clear that if you don’t do what he wants, you will once again hurt him.

Uses his victimization to avoid changing his behavior

Rather than change his own behaviors, he continues in the role of victim until you accommodate his demands. If you complain about his manipulation, he acts saddened and shocked by your criticism, saying you now have to earn back his trust (which also implies earning back his friendship and support).

In the role of victim, he makes it clear that he is always the one sacrificing for the greater good, and that others have exploited his good intentions. He says he is tired of doing all the compromising. When you try to reason with him, he becomes angry and indignant, perhaps even announcing that he isn’t going to be so polite in the future. If anyone suggests his behavior is over the top, he becomes outwardly belligerent, claiming that no one appreciates the important things he does for the company, the sacrifices he makes and the pain he suffers. If more than one person points out the absurdity of his claims, he becomes furious as he declares that everyone is ganging up on him.

6. Self-righteous

In order to conceal his corrupt character and ruthless ambitions, a workplace bully claims the moral and ethical high ground. alternatively, a delusional bully may actually be convinced he possesses superior virtue, and that his noble objectives fully justify deceiving and mistreating others. Either way, his self-righteous manner is a constant force, often leading to bullying behaviors.

He is good, others are bad

A self-righteous bully implies he is a good person, but others are ill-intentioned and devious. He tells stories that demonstrate his own goodness and highlight the questionable motives of others.

Superior character

A self-righteous bully describes himself as exhibiting the best moral, ethical and intellectual qualities, implying that others don’t share his high standards. He uses distorted examples or makes off-hand remarks in order to suggest that others have shaky ethics or morals.

Superior motives

He characterizes his intentions as highly unselfish, while suggesting that others are seeking their own selfish ends. He suggests that unlike others in the company, he has the employees’ best interests in mind.

When speaking at a meeting, he appeals to nobler motives, which of course coincide with his own objectives. In order to show he is more devoted to the company than anyone else, he quotes the company’s vision and values.

He uses highly aggressive phrases to intimidate you with his superior motives, such as:

“Stop being so selfish.”

“Why are you being so selfish?”

“Why are you being so mean-spirited?”

“Why are you being so stubborn?”

“You’re only thinking about yourself.”

“You need to put the company first instead of always thinking about yourself.”

If he says “You know I would do the same for you,” it is probably an attempt to manipulate you through guilt rather than to offer a fair exchange of cooperation.

Superior commitment

A self-righteous bully tells stories that demonstrate his extreme commitment to the company. He describes his long hours and personal sacrifices, then suggests others lack commitment. He readily embraces the role of martyr for the company, never acknowledging that his bullying tactics created inefficiencies that necessitated his excessive hours.

Superior performance

He brags about his consistently superior performance. When he is forced to admit a mistake, he makes a big deal about it, both to highlight the fact that his mistakes are very rare and to demonstrate his supposed humility. If a self-righteous bully is sufficiently delusional, he may even take pride in his humble nature.

7. Pompous

A pompous bully pretends to be a strong leader, when in fact he is a smug, self-satisfied, self-important, pretentious, bombastic, ego-absorbed, ego-indulgent braggart. These elements of his personality are a major cause of his manipulative and overbearing approach to dealing with others.

Inflates himself

He constantly exaggerates his own importance. He attempts to look as powerful as possible by telling stories that highlight his cleverness and accomplishments. He acts like a know-it-all by claiming superior knowledge and experience on most topics. Of course, he never admits mistakes and never apologizes, unless to prove how rarely he makes a mistake.

Demeans others

He doesn’t treat you as an equal, but instead acts as if you are unimportant and powerless. He is condescending in words, tone of voice and mannerisms. He seems to enjoy feeling superior to you.

Prima donna

A successful bully may develop a conceited view of his role in a company, at times acting vain, moody and unpredictable. He can be very dramatic about things that affect him.

For example, he acts as if his department is the most important, demanding that the company treat his projects as a priority. He demands an important title or a better office, regardless of whether it is fair to others. When asked to contribute to a team effort, he refuses to follow the leadership of others, most likely because he considers them inferior in wisdom, judgment, intellect and experience. And far less important than him.

Meeting hog

A pompous bully often exploits meetings to pump up his ego. When he is speaking, a major objective is to demonstrate his superior intellect. Using high-sounding phrases, industry lingo or obscure technical references, he lectures others on the best way to accomplish things. He speaks extensively about his successes, even when others were primarily responsible. Grandstanding is second nature to him.

When he is talking, he demands the full attention of everyone in the room, perhaps using an overly dignified tone of voice to command respect. But when you are talking, he is intentionally rude in order to show your unimportance. For example, he fiddles with his cell phone, holds side conversations with the person next to him, or reviews documents and make notes about something unrelated to the meeting.

He may also attempt to control the meeting agenda, even to the point of wasting everyone’s time on items of exclusive interest to him. In his vanity, he believes his obviously superior ideas and opinions justify his domination of every meeting he attends.

8. Hypocritical

A skilled bully finds it expedient to openly claim beliefs, feelings and virtues that he doesn’t actually possess. Then regardless of his true attitudes, ethics, morality and intentions, he can influence others without arousing their suspicion.

A hypocrite despises those whom he deceives, but has no respect for himself. He would make a dupe of himself too, if he could.
 - William Hazlitt

Essentially, a hypocritical bully’s spoken philosophy doesn’t match his underlying beliefs. Due to this contradiction, his hypocrisy becomes readily apparent to those working closely with him. However, the rest of the company is usually unaware of his duplicitous nature, instead accepting the positive image he cleverly manufacturers.

For example, he preaches mutual trust, but betrays your trust in him. He preaches teamwork at the same time he undermines you. He conceals his activities, but attacks you for not publicizing yours. He glosses over his mistakes as insignificant and not worth discussing, but exaggerates your mistakes, bringing them up again and again. He is a loose cannon, but complains when you show independence and initiative.

If you work with a hypocritical bully long enough, you will discover that there are no limits to the ways in which he can reveal the contradiction between what he says and what he does.

9. Two-faced

There’s nothing quite like that moment when a charismatic bully first shows you his true colors. From that moment on, everything he says and does seems like a fraud. You begin to wonder how you ever believed his deceptions. But then, looking around, you realize that everyone else continues to be taken in by his act, as if they are hypnotized by the sound of his voice.

Welcome to the strange and dangerous world of a two-faced bully.

Deceitful behaviors

A two-faced bully outwardly pretends to support you while secretly undermining you. His warm personality or soft-spoken manner hides his destructive intentions, including a take-no-prisoners attitude should you oppose him. After lulling you into complacency, he verbally stabs you in the back, usually when you least expect it.

Public vs. private words

A two-faced bully is positive and supportive in public, but negative and overly critical in private. Others sing praises of his virtue, vision, good humor and leadership, while you are suffering from his frequent attempts to intimidate and belittle you.

Don’t be too surprised if you’re the only one who recognizes the two-faced character of a workplace bully. He has spent years perfecting his technique.

10. Rumor-monger

Let’s say you are standing your ground against a particularly nasty bully and he decides to bring out the big guns. Before you know it, you overhear co-workers belittling you in a private conversation. What happened?

There is a good chance you have been the target of rumor-mongering. Although a bully commonly undermines you behind your back to reduce your power, he spreads damaging rumors when he wants to weaken you permanently. These range from inaccurate criticisms of your character to malicious accusations of wrong-doing.

Attacks your character

By frequently repeating unwarranted negative comments about you, he tries to set perceptions before you can explain your actions. Over time, his persistent attacks can undermine your reputation and convince others that you are bad for the company.

To accomplish this, he unfairly criticizes you behind your back by giving an inaccurate account of a recent event. He attacks the quality of your work, without any factual basis, by giving noteworthy or humorous examples of your mistakes. He implies you have bad intentions by misquoting you, or tells stories that wrongly characterize you as lazy, incompetent, dishonest, destructive or misguided. He may even suggest you have personal or emotional problems.

Uses distortions and lies as he spreads rumors about you

A rumor-monger treats half-truths and hearsay as damning evidence. He distorts the meaning of comments made by others, thus converting innocent observations into harsh criticisms. He repeats statements from obviously biased sources, prefacing the rumor with praise of the source’s character. If necessary, he even makes up lies about you.

Spreads malicious rumors about you

At his most diabolical, a bully suggests you are immoral, depressed or even suicidal. He misrepresents or exaggerates actual events in a manner that implies the worst about your behavior. Through his distortions, he leads others to very harsh conclusions, effectively destroying your reputation.

It’s hard to believe someone would stoop so low, but like most of the bullying traits described on this website, I witnessed this first-hand: the bully distorted the meaning of recent events to support his conclusion that another executive was suicidal, helping justify the bully’s power grab.

11. Passive-aggressive

A workplace bully may be aggressive towards you by things he doesn’t do. By not doing something that would normally occur, he can insult you and weaken you, with a potentially serious impact on your ability to move forward with your career.

Uses the silent treatment

When a passive-aggressive bully can’t get his way, he sulks instead of confronting issues honestly and fairly. He closes his office door more often than usual, he doesn’t return phone calls and he avoids talking with you. At meetings, he is unusually quiet, but his disappointment is obvious from his silence. His intention is to make others feel guilty and to interfere with company operations, ultimately causing others to submit to his demands.

Excludes you from social interaction within the company

When he is unhappy with your behavior, he intentionally excludes you from social gatherings or recreational events that he has arranged, either after work or on weekends. During company functions or retreats, he excludes you from impromptu get-togethers or activities during free time.

Cuts you out of the loop

At his worst, a passive-aggressive bully keeps you in the dark about new strategies, projects and clients, perhaps by excluding you from office communication (email, meetings, informal conversations, lunches). He effectively exiles you from his department, possibly resulting in your termination.

Through methods like these, passive-aggressive behavior represents one of the most diabolical forms of workplace bullying.

12. Pretends to care

A workplace bully can be particularly dangerous when he is pretending to care about you and others in the company. Most people are taken in by his displays of enthusiasm and affection, never considering that he is concealing a shrewd, self-serving nature. The bully exploits this naivete to his advantage.

Despite the caring exterior, his underlying goal is to control you. He attempts to manipulate you through “caring” statements like these:

“I’m doing this for your own good.”

“I only want what’s best for your career.”

“I don’t know why others think you’re incompetent; I like you.”

“You know I respect you, but you have lost the respect of others.”

“I know you’re smart, but when you did that, people looked at you as foolish.”

“I don’t care if everyone else thinks you’re incompetent; I believe in you.”

Here are a few ways a bully attacks you under the guise of pretending to care:

Undermining you in front of others

A bully claims to be your best friend in the company, but undermines you at meetings or in conversations with others. he tells others he wants you to succeed, but your “lack of maturity” is holding you back. He stereotypes your personality type or suggests you have emotional problems, and then acts very concerned for your well-being.

Through these tactics, he is trying to gently persuade everyone that he is a true, caring leader, while you are inconsistent and unstable. He may even report that during a performance review, you became angry and denied you have serious problems--yet another sign of your emotional instability.

Belittling you in a “friendly” manner

A favorite technique of a skilled bully is to belittle you while pretending it is camaraderie, thus concealing his destructive behaviors under an exterior of charm and friendliness. For example, he tells a story about your serious but somewhat humorous mistake (an exaggeration or misinterpretation), perhaps adding that he rescued the situation, then treats it as good-natured kidding.

If you confront him with his belittling comments, he tells you to “lighten up”, that he didn’t mean any harm. Many healthy relationships contain a large quantity of good-natured teasing, of course, but a bully intentionally crosses the line into damaging personal attacks. And he does all this while pretending to care about you.

Overly harsh criticism

A bully’s criticisms (euphemistically called “friendly advice”) are rarely constructive. Lacking empathy, he doesn’t recognize the challenges you face, particularly when his behavior impedes you from successfully performing your job. He never suggests real-world solutions to your daily problems. Also, he doesn’t balance his criticism with an acknowledgment of your skills, hard work and value to the company.

At times, he tries to overwhelm you with criticism, accumulating a long list and unloading on you all at once. And any compliments he gives you are insincere and are usually followed by inappropriate and unfair criticism.

Outright slander

at his most treacherous, a bully offers to give you helpful feedback, then makes a malicious statement about you. In effect, he treats nasty gossip as legitimate for the purpose of hurting you. Although he claims that his frankness is for your own good, his intention is to shock you into changing your behavior to meet his demands. He doesn’t care if he destroys your self-confidence in the process.

It only seems hopeless

Now that you have studied all of the bullying traits--obvious, visible, hidden--you are in a position to fully diagnosis your situation.

Perhaps by now you have concluded that you are dealing with one or more highly skilled, well-entrenched bullies. With so many weapons available to them, it may seem hopeless to try to fight back.

But even if you’re certain that the patients will always be in charge of the mental hospital that you tactfully refer to as “work,” don’t give up hope (unless, of course, the bully is the owner, or the owner’s son). There is always the possibility that your honesty, integrity and common sense approach to your job will one day be recognized by someone powerful who isn’t under the spell of a charismatic bully. (But are you sure it’s worth the wait?)