Identifying a Workplace Bully

A workplace bully prefers you to be blind to his true nature. perceptive people are difficult targets. And the better your understanding of a bully and his behaviors, the more effective you will be in applying the techniques for fighting back.

This section fleshes out the essentials for identifying a bully, including his basic methods and classic characteristics. In later sections, we’ll get into numerous, specific traits of a bully--visible and hidden--and the type of environment that encourages workplace bullies (the toxic workplace).

Identifying a bully

  • Basic methods
  • His followers
  • Classic characteristics

Basic methods of a workplace bully

Although a workplace bully has many ways of controlling others and gaining power, five basic methods form the foundation of his powerful strategy for personal success. The most effective bullies employ these in a skillful blend of charm and aggression that carries them to the top of their profession.

Basic bully methods:

  1. Manipulates through seduction
  2. Intimidates through verbal aggression
  3. Uses political gamesmanship
  4. Plays mind games
  5. Disguises true intentions and emotions

1. Manipulates through seduction

A bully encourages others to obey him by offering to meet their emotional and financial needs. He promises friendship, respect, career advancement and financial rewards, hoping you will strive for the success and acceptance that can come through him. However, he only delivers on his promises when it benefits him.

2. Intimidates through verbal aggression

A bully is verbally aggressive in order to intimidate others into compliance. He uses angry outbursts as a weapon. He threatens failure, or uses guilt and shame to appeal to your sense of duty. If you resist, he argues vehemently. And if he feels you need to be taught a lesson, he embarrasses you in front of others.

3. Uses political gamesmanship

A bully is constantly building his power base. He builds alliances within the company and undermines anyone who won’t support him. He gathers damaging information on his opponents, or blames them for any failures. He uses subtle, negative phrasing to demean his opponents and weaken them. He also seeks to control more company resources, which means fewer resources are available for his rivals.

4. Plays mind games to distort the thinking of others

A bully creates an alternative reality in the minds of those around him. He keeps people off-balance through half-truths, hearsay and misstatements. His distorted version of events is intended to obscure and confuse. or he intentionally misleads you so that you arrive at an incorrect conclusion, and then exposes your mistaken opinion as proof of your ignorance or unreliability.

5. Disguises his true intentions and emotions

A bully puts on a good act to gain your trust and respect. he never reveals his true intentions, which are self-serving and at times harmful to others. He conceals his innermost attitudes and emotions, which are self-absorbed and disrespectful of others. He maintains an image of strength, vision and leadership, and thus avoids exposing his underhanded, manipulative nature. A skilled bully can achieve a lifetime of success through his deceptions, not just in a typical workplace, but in entertainment, media and politics.

A workplace bully’s followers

To become powerful, a workplace bully needs many supporters. he is proficient in identifying people who can be controlled by charm or guile, intimidation or manipulation.

A bully tests you

As you become acquainted with a skilled bully, he tests you to determine if you will become a follower or an opponent. At first, he challenges you with mild verbal criticism. Or he invades your personal space by standing too close and hovering behind you in your work area. If you silently endure his behavior, he concludes that you tend to avoid confrontation.

Or he watches for you to be in a bad mood, then tries to learn the reason. “Are you feeling okay?” may be his attempt to get you to share personal information. If you reveal that you are undergoing stress in your personal life, he views you as emotionally vulnerable. By learning your emotional hot buttons, he positions himself to gain power over you.

With him or against him

On the other hand, if you seem unlikely to become a loyal follower, he concludes you are a threat to his success and begins plotting ways to discredit you, to diminish your influence over others and to reduce any power you have in the company.

Qualities a workplace bully seeks in his followers

A workplace bully prefers followers who are easily intimidated, deceived and controlled. He seeks a number of specific characteristics or qualities.

Qualities of followers:

  1. Good
  2. Idealistic
  3. Passive
  4. Self-critical
  5. Fearful
  6. Vulnerable
1. Good
A bully wants followers who are cooperative, conscientious and giving. He knows that unselfish, caring people are more likely to forgive his aggression and continue serving his needs, even after years of verbal abuse.
2. Idealistic
The best followers are naive, self-sacrificing and altruistic, with a strong belief in duty, obedience, loyalty and teamwork. A bully looks for people who are eager to please others in pursuit of a noble purpose (which, of course, is defined by the bully).
3. Passive
A bully wants followers who are polite to a fault, non-confrontational, afraid to debate others openly, easily interrupted, quiet and non-expressive. He understands that introverts are more likely to become subservient to an aggressive leader.
4. Self-critical
People who are overly critical of themselves or lack self-respect are more likely to accept the premise that a bully has superior intellect and character. These types of followers tend to lack self-confidence, making them more willing to accept blame and more likely to become dependent on the leadership of the bully.
5. Fearful
People who display a great deal of fear are usually easier targets for intimidation and manipulation. As a result, a bully seeks followers who are tentative in manner and socially anxious, perhaps displaying nervous habits and speech patterns, such as using a timid tone of voice.
6. Vulnerable
Emotionally vulnerable people are also more easily manipulated. Some of a bully’s most loyal followers have difficult personal lives or long-term problems with their careers. Strong negative emotions--greed, anger, hate, envy, jealousy--also expose one to exploitation by a skilled bully.

Classic characteristics of a workplace bully

Certain behaviors are classic symptoms of a bullying mentality, making diagnosis relatively easy. The most obvious are recurring outbursts, serious threats, intentional harassment and harsh ridicule.

Classic bullying characteristics:

  1. Recurring outbursts
  2. Serious threats
  3. Intentional harassment
  4. Harsh ridicule

1. Recurring outbursts

Unlike a bully, a good person maintains a fundamental respect for his fellow workers even as he expresses his anger due to personal stress or extreme frustration. He has no desire to exploit your relationship and he certainly isn’t trying to use his anger to control you.

In contrast, a bully shrewdly uses his anger as a weapon of intimidation. His recurring displays may be violent verbal tirades or soft-spoken diatribes; or, in order to keep you off guard, he alternates between methods. He intends for you to dread his explosions of temper, thus creating an atmosphere of fear, which he can use to control you.

How a workplace bully displays anger

In the more obvious cases, a bully rants and raves, screams and yells, and barks orders like an abusive drill sergeant. At other times he displays a soft-spoken anger, barely under control, but with a hair trigger, ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

A bully may be emotionally volatile to point of physical aggression against inanimate objects (dropping a set of files, slamming down the phone, throwing a pen across the room). Or he may use angry gestures, such as pounding on the table.

Dealing with someone who crosses the line into potential or actual physical aggression or violence against a person is outside of the scope of this website. These situations should be addressed as a priority.

How a workplace bully lies about his anger

A bully becomes angry when you refuse to let him control you (towards his own selfish ends, of course). With utter hypocrisy, he then complains that his anger was triggered by your stubborn selfishness.

Why a workplace bully expresses anger so eagerly

Many bullies lack impulse control and thus are quick to express anger. This is unlike well-adjusted people who, out of respect for others, will usually suppress displays of anger; or who act to address the underlying issue that is causing their anger, thus diminishing it.

In contrast, a bully rationalizes anger as a normal method of expressing emotions: “I always express anger rather than bottle it up,” and “People who don’t show their anger are hurting themselves.”

This unhealthy attitude ignores the value of releasing anger in a mature, controlled manner without negatively impacting other people. Once again, he has chosen a destructive behavior trait, either not caring that he is harming others or believing that the “beneficial” end result justifies his behavior.

Why a workplace bully has so much anger

Rather than attempt to avoid or diminish his anger, a highly aggressive bully intentionally fuels it. He considers it an asset, part of his strong, forthright character. As a result, he never bothers to clarify simple misunderstandings and he never wants to hear the other side of the story (although he might let you talk briefly so he can later claim he heard your explanations).

Also, a bully never develops the empathy that could help him diffuse his anger. As a result, his anger fills a reservoir within him. Then when someone breaches the dam by openly opposing him, it unleashes a flood of ranting and raving until the bully gets his way.

2. Serious threats

If a workplace bully can’t convince you to follow him willingly, he may try to force you to comply. One of his most powerful weapons is to threaten you.

Subtle threats

He may make a casual suggestion, with only a brief hint of the negative consequences of disobeying him. For example, in order to convince you to work late, he may jokingly mention that he will soon be filling out performance reviews. Although a well-intentioned boss may mean this as an innocent (though inappropriate) joke, a skilled bully is more likely making a veiled threat. In response, you will probably change your behavior, particularly if he has unfairly criticized you on past reviews. Ignoring the threat could have a direct impact on your future promotions and pay raises, of which the bully is well aware. It is a serious threat disguised as a casual joke by a cunning bully.

Obvious threats

Alternatively, he may blatantly promise to make trouble for you. His intention is to force you to succumb to his demands. And he is likely to make good on his threats, like a loan shark who doesn’t want to get the reputation of being a pushover. The bully won’t break your thumbs, but the impact can be just as damaging.

Obvious threats include keeping you at your current pay level while everyone else gets raises, giving you a highly critical written performance evaluation, opposing your future promotion, telling upper management about your poor performance, reducing your role in his department, or exiling you into an isolating, dead-end assignment.

If you suggest that you should transfer out of his department, he threatens to fire you. If he is particularly vindictive, he will threaten to destroy your reputation and even your career.

Emotional blackmail

Threats may also be in the form of emotional blackmail.

In traditional blackmail, the blackmailer says that unless you give him money, he will reveal something that will destroy your reputation. In emotional blackmail, he implies that unless you submit to his demands, he take actions that will destroy you emotionally.

For example, a bully threatens to withdraw his approval, respect and camaraderie unless you do what he wants. He doesn’t use these words, of course, but his message is crystal clear. He may say: “I don’t know why you’re questioning me on this; I thought we had a good working relationship.” Or: “You don’t want to disappoint me, do you?”

A more aggressive emotional blackmailer takes a harsher approach: either do what he wants, or you can expect to suffer some very unpleasant emotions, such as fear, guilt and failure. For example, he says: “If you don’t do that, the project will fail, and you will have to live with the embarrassment.” He may also make the dire claim that unless you yield to his desires, you will permanently damage your relationship with him, leading to your isolation within the company, with dire consequences for your future.

3. Intentional harassment

When you resist bullying, you may experience repeated attacks over the course of weeks or months. Through this harassment, the bully attempts to grind you into submission.

Wearing you down

Any single outburst, criticism or punishment may seem innocuous, but over time he wears you down. You may experience frayed emotions and rattled nerves, reduced confidence and a sense of mental exhaustion. Eventually--at least this is the bully’s intention--you learn to avoid future pain by changing your behavior to accommodate his desires.

Variety of tactics

A harassing bully may employ a number of different tactics. He questions your integrity or demeans your role in the company. He suggests you are incompetent, or even that you have emotional or psychological problems. He yells insults at you. He repeats hearsay that belittles you. He makes unjustified accusations, or punishes you for petty things. In a less conspicuous form of harassment, he bothers you incessantly in an attempt to control your smallest move. Other bullying behaviors contribute to this overall pattern of harassment.

When harassment crosses the line into the area of sex, it may or may not be a result of intentional workplace bullying. Regardless, the element of sex within a pattern of harassment can be a serious issue.

Sexual harassment is outside of the scope of this website. If you believe you are a target of sexual harassment, you should address that as a priority.

4. Harsh ridicule

If you resist a bully’s attempts to control you, he may intensify his attacks. Ridicule is among his more damaging tactics. This goes beyond harmless ribbing--like you would see from a good-natured boss or peer--and into the realm of purposeful derision.

Why a workplace bully ridicules you

A bully uses ridicule to embarrass or even humiliate you. His intention is either to coerce you into submission or punish you for resisting. If you are a threat to him, he may use ridicule to damage your reputation and weaken your influence within the company.

When a bully makes you an object of amusement, his thinly veiled contempt tends to denigrate your character and intelligence. And because ridicule is easy to deny (“I was only kidding around”), a bully can usually get away with harsh attacks without exposing his true intentions.

How a workplace bully ridicules you

A bully may use a variety of methods to ridicule you. He tells amusing stories that suggest you are immature and naive. Using a sarcastic tone of voice, he gives you obviously insincere compliments. He may even mimic your mannerisms with humorous exaggeration in front of others.

He repeats your words out of context, intentionally misrepresenting your meaning, in order to make you sound confused and ill-informed. He suggests you don’t think very clearly, and jokes about your supposed inability to make a decision. Without any basis in fact, he mocks your specific fears or feelings of guilt, or even your supposedly unhealthy attitude and unstable personality.

How a workplace bully covers his tracks

A bully uses the more charming side of his personality to claim his ridicule was nothing but good-natured teasing. He says you misunderstood his meaning, you are overly sensitive or you have no sense of humor. Thus even his lies about his harsh behavior can further demean you in front of others.

A bully’s favorite statements when confronted about his ridicule are:

“I was just kidding.”

“Why are you so sensitive?”

“You need to lighten up.”

“You need to learn to take a joke.”

“What’s the matter, can’t you take a little ribbing?”

A workplace bully’s hypocrisy

At the same time, a bully never tells an embarrassing story with him as the subject of mirth. And if you ridicule him in the exact same manner as he ridiculed you, he explodes in anger.

Even your most casual, friendly, good-natured teasing could set him off. After all, he judges your actions through the lens of his own twisted intentions. He will naturally conclude that you were attempting to diminish him in the eyes of others.

Thus, in a bully’s upside-down world, innocent kidding, when directed at him, is bad (deserving harsh retaliation); whereas truly demeaning ridicule, when directed at you, is good (resulting in a few harmless laughs).

A new perspective

Now that you have a handle on the basic methods and classic characteristics of workplace bullies, you will begin seeing things differently at work. You still have a long way to go, however, before you will be able to recognize all of his tactics and learn to effectively fight back.

But at least you are catching on to his game. That’s not something a bully is going to like--so you know you’re on the right track.