“Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.” Leonardo da Vinci

Much has been written (thankfully) about the pervasive increase of bullying in the workplace.  Not as much has been written, though, about the tacit, even welcome, atmosphere of aggression in many workplace cultures.
Throughout my years of consulting in organizational settings, I’ve been disturbed by the consistent reports from employees of workplace aggression that is rationalized, tolerated and condoned by management. 
There’s always been a fine line in defining the sometimes subtle distinctions between assertive and aggressive behaviors.  The differences are dependent upon idiosyncratic perceptions. Since we’ve now added bully behavior to the spectrum, the lines get even blurrier.
When I stand over your desk or point a finger at you and say, “No offense, but that’s not the way you do things around here,” chances are you’ll see me as an aggressor – maybe even a bully.
Those who describe themselves as non-assertive or at least, non-aggressive in the context of their workplace, similarly report that their cultures either excuse or ignore aggressive behaviors.  
Many workers are encouraged by management to adopt more aggressive tactics to get the job done more effectively.  Some employees believe that “something is wrong with me,” or “I won’t get promoted” unless they adopt the particular brand of aggression that’s the norm in their workplace. Self-blame is not uncommon when faced with choices that go against who we are and our own natural communication style.

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

The tenacious meme that “Nice (guys) finish last,” still rules most organizational mindsets.  A recent study done at Cornell showed that “people who are disagreeable earn more than people who are agreeable, and the gap is biggest among men who earn 18.3% on average more than those who are significantly more agreeable than average. The comparable figure for women is 5.47%.”

Authors of the study conceded that they found their findings puzzling. Given the reliance of organizations on teams, they write, “It would seem that people high in agreeableness would have at least a slight economic advantage. The professors concluded that the reasons for this gap can be attributed to the “powerful effect of masculine stereotypes on men’s earnings.”

In his excellent blog, Minding the Workplace, author David Yamada points out a criticism of efforts to establish anti-bully legislation from two corporate employment lawyers who claimed that “legal protections against workplace bullying are contrary to high performance expectations for workers and the value of healthy competition.”  They go on to say, tension created by competition fuels productivity at work and anti-bully measures would, “not only inhibit productivity and employers’ freedom to hire and fire at will employees but moreover, it would chill critical workplace communication.”

Despite the formidable political hurdles, there’s no question that crafting workable anti-bully legislation is complex and implementation will be even more challenging.  But the statements made by these attorneys reflect a deeper problem – the ingrained mindsets that drive the belief that cooperative and collaborative workplaces are not conducive to profit-making.

While many organizations and managers may talk team, they still are the enforcers (male and female) of the dying status quo that feeds on conformity.  The persistence in promoting and enabling aggression in the workplace (consciously or not) seems at odds with a larger culture that on the surface is growing weary of uncivil behavior.  In June, 2010, a poll done by Weber Shandwick showed that 65% of Americans thought incivility was a major problem that has worsened since the financial crisis surfaced in 2008.

Bully Behavior

Bullying takes many forms: belittling comments, persistent criticism, withholding of resources, email attacks, gossip and lying, ignoring or excluding others, yelling, insults and worse.

Although interpretations of other’s actions and intentions are highly subjective, no one wants to or should be the recipient of this kind of unacceptable behavior. Attempts to minimize a person’s reports of being bullied as “victimhood,” or self-indulgence are part of the problem – not the solution.

Dr. Sandy Hershcovis, author of a University of Manitoba study on workplace bullying states, “Bullying can be subtle and may include behaviors that do not appear obvious to others. For instance, how does an employee report to their boss that they have been excluded from lunch? Or that they are being ignored by a coworker? The insidious nature of these behaviors makes them difficult to deal with and sanction.”

The root drivers of both aggressive and bully behavior are similar:

  • Low self-esteem, often masked as self-confidence
  • Unresolved emotional issues, usually stemming from circumstances outside the workplace
  • Low self-awareness – failing to understand the impact of one’s own actions on others
  • Lack of ability to connect with one’s own natural empathic nature
  • Confusion about how to get needs met without denigrating others
  • Habituated and unregulated negative behaviors that have grown compulsive  with repetitive experience
  • (Deluded) sense of power


Why Do We Allow Bully Behavior?

While bully behavior may be “old news,” it isn’t going away. It’s on the increase in nearly every industry and institution.  Over 50% of the individuals and organizations we work with say they have a mild to serious bully problem in their workplaces.  A weak economy, poor job market, increased incivility in the media and politics to mention only a few stressors continue to provoke aggression in the culture at large.
Bully behavior is pandemic. Attempts to minimize, isolate and marginalize bully behaviors within organizational settings are largely ineffective. Organizations ignore this growing trend at their own expense.  Most organizations continue to perceive and define behavioral problems with a 19th lens.  The last two decades have produced ample neuroscience to demonstrate that bullied brains – the aggressors’ and the victims’ cannot function normally, let alone, optimally.
According to neuroscientists like Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, the brains of bullies may actually work differently, due to biological predisposition and early childhood experience.  That should not suggest that we treat bullies as sick or outcasts, regardless of their onerous behavior. They deserve our compassion and support to get the help they need so that their behavior does not harm the well-being of others and contribute to workplace toxicity.
 Bully behaviors continue in workplace settings for many reasons:

  • Aggression is systemic – it takes a bigger vision or an outside force or intervention to shake up the system to begin the process of change
  • Until recently, federal and state laws defining civil rights have not included or defined bullying as a distinct violation.  This makes the job of those in HR who want to take action, difficult or even impossible.  Those filing complaints have had to prove illegal discriminatory harassment, which occurs (according to the laws to date) in only 20% of bullying cases. This will change depending on the progress of the Healthy Workplace Bill.  However, legal limitations should not impede the efforts of HR and every level of management to set clear, definitive organizational guidelines that certain behaviors will not be tolerated.
  • Senior managers and human resources lack the knowledge, information and sometimes, the will, to understand the latest research and data on the psychological and sociological foundation of bullying and its implication for the workplace.
  • Some HR staff believe they lack the authority (and in many organizations they do) to intervene when they think bullying is taking place.
  • FEAR. Fear is at the core of what keeps most hostile environments and bully behaviors in place.  Fear from managers, department heads and co-workers who do not want to “rock the boat.” Fear from those who are conflict-averse. Fear from managers who justify the aggressive behavior of those who work for them because they are “star performers” or politically well-connected. Fear from those who are bullied and suffer quietly because they are afraid of losing their jobs.  And fear from the bullies – who are often unconscious of the inner struggles that drive them.

We will only be able to create “healthy workplaces” when we sweep the cobwebs off our eyes, recognize that courage is required to confront fear and understand that unless we transform the workplace culture – things are only going to get worse.
For those trying to cope with being bullied there are many good resources for you to contact:
The Workplace Bullying Institute                     
Bully Free at Work                                                
Minding the Workplace (blog)                        
Bullies Be Gone (blog)                                         
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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