Why bullies get ahead at work

Mobbing at work

“Excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you,” says leadership speaker William Deresiewicz. Most of us who find ourselves bullied at work wonder how on earth the incompetent bullies get ahead while the competent and ethical targets stay at lower ranks with less pay and responsibility.

Here are two reasons why bullies get ahead at work:

  1. Our culture rewards narcissism and selfishness. We live in an oppressive culture where enough people believe those who think they’re more important and entitled than others — and allow toxic behavior. When a bully simply takes power and feels entitled to dictate, belittle, control, or manipulate the target by calling him or her “sensitive” or “emotional,” and we or leaders believe the dismissal of the target rather than hold the bully accountable, we help the bully get ahead.
  2. Incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people overrate others. The phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to Wikipedia, “the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average…. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.”

How we can change the culture

We move the needle when we stop seeing the target as “sensitive” or “emotional” and instead recognize the real problem: the bully’s narcissistic behavior. We change the culture when we:

  • Stand up to belittling, controlling, and manipulative behaviors.
  • Stop giving people power who act entitled to it.
  • Foster a collaborative environment in which we respect all opinions.
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