Office bullies

Jul 23, 2018

They are everywhere, but they don’t have to win. Identify their behavior and rectify it, or risk losing your staff.

Regrettably, we have all been there, regardless of the profession. Whether it’s real estate, marketing, or architecture and engineering, it’s never too difficult to find a bully in the office. So let me tell you this story and see if you can relate.

On several occasions, a young real estate company asset manager witnessed building tenants smoking on the premises in violation of building policy. While she did not work in property management, as an up-and-coming company leader, she was concerned about the building’s reputation. She brought the matter to the property management director.

The director did not respond appreciatively. Instead, she sat back in her chair, rolled her shoulders, and responded icily, “Oh, really?” She then leaned forward and started making rapid notes. The young manager waited for her to ask questions. Instead, the director continued to write. Finally, she waved away the young manager without lifting her head or uttering another word.

The manager fled out the door. It had taken a lot of courage to approach the director. Now she felt stupid and humiliated, mumbling, “What happened there?”

What happened there was she had run into an office bully.

What is a bully?

A bully uses superior strength or influence to intimidate others to force them to do what he or she wants. They succeed in dominating others by using a variety of behaviors. Five major types are:

  1. Overcontrol: “He’s a total micromanager. He treats us like kids instead of adults.”
  2. Threats: “She told them if they didn’t like the way she ran things, she’d be happy to write them a reference.”
  3. Public humiliation: “He yells at people and belittles them out where everyone can hear.”
  4. Condescension: “Her tone conveys ‘I’m bright and right – you’re slow and stupid.’”
  5. Overreaction: “He makes snap judgments – makes assumptions and leaps to conclusions without investigating.”

Depressed, yet? As obvious as these unconstructive, obnoxious behaviors are to others, one of the many misconceptions about bullies is that they are aware of their bad behavior and act deliberately. In fact, many do not realize how they come across, much less their destructive impact.

Another misconception is that bullies come from a place of strength. In fact, they tend to be conflict avoidant, often wrestling with insecurity. The property management director in the aforementioned story, for example, may have allowed herself no room for errors and hated hearing that she missed something.

Regardless of their underlying issues, the over-compensating behavior of bullies can wreak havoc on their teams and the broader organization. When the company supports them by ignoring the problem, the results are costly.

People avoid bullies by finding excuses to exclude them. Ideas don’t flow. Execution suffers. Those who have the misfortune of working with them find their ideas ridiculed, their achievements unrecognized, and careers stunted by the bullying manager’s self-absorption. More significantly, the company suffers a cultural impact. When people perceive it tolerates bullies, the message gets out that it has a toxic work culture. That hurts the attraction and retention of talent, as people will leave, or avoid joining in the first place.

Therefore, it behooves organizations to confront their bullies.

Bully Intervention 101:

  1. The big reveal. Somebody has to tell them. An intrepid employee might challenge a bully by asking them to stop a behavior. Sometimes that works. More likely, senior management has to act.
  2. Messaging. “Presume the bullies are blind,” advises Pam Rechel, an executive coach who has worked with many bullies. Messaging to bullies should be clear and fact based.
    1. Name and describe the behaviors. For example, “Stop raising your voice, pointing your finger, and pounding on the table.”
    2. Describe the consequences. “Nobody wants to work for you. If you do not change your abrasive behaviors (don’t say “bully”), it could cost you your _____ (bonus, promotion, job, etc.).”
    3. Propose a plan. Tell them that you value them enough to offer coaching. It is optional, but behavioral change is not.
  3. Collect feedback. An interview-based 360 will provide specific feedback on the bullying behavior and its impact on others.
  4. Implement a plan. The plan should include an agreement to target behaviors identified by feedback, a coach to promote learning, and regular progress reports to senior management.

Success depends on leadership enforcing the plan. This includes carrying out the consequences of failure to cease bullying behaviors. It’s not easy, but the reward for bully intervention is decreased bad behavior, increased productivity, and a much-improved work environment.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 16 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the discomfort and excitement of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is an award-winning author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. She can be reached at

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