Simply put, to end workplace bullying, we focus on the actual root of the problem: the bullies. Why? We keep the focus on the bullies as the problem — not how targets react or what personality traits might be flawed (especially since it’s the strengths of the target that puts him or her at risk).
Why bullies bully
Sociopaths can’t empathize (put themselves in others’ shoes) because they’re so completely cut off from their own emotions — particularly fear, hurt, and vulnerability, which they see as a shameful weakness. “If you can’t feel your own emotions, you can’t resonate and empathize with the emotions of other people,” says Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me World.
More on why a bully bullies:
“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:
- 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.
- 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.
Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer. But for those in the labor movement, the day represents justice for employees.
How Labor Day came to be
In her article “How Labor Day got its violent start,” USA Today reporter Susan Miller describes the holiday as a violent and pivotal moment in U.S. labor history. In the late 1800s, U.S. employees often worked 12 hour workdays under dangerous work conditions for little pay. Based on these poor work conditions, workers formed the nation’s first labor unions, which organized protests and strikes for better hours and pay.
In 1882, 10,000 New York City workers from New York’s Central Labor Union marched from City Hall to Union Square without pay, marking the first unofficial Labor Day parade. State governments recognized the day through legislation in the years that followed.
Twelve years later, in 1894, workers took an even bigger stand. A Chicago strike involving 250,000 workers in 25 states created a transportation catastrophe across the U.S.:
The community, located on the Southside of Chicago, was designed as a “company town” in which most of the factory workers who built Pullman cars [railroad sleeping cars] lived. When wage cuts hit, 4,000 workers staged a strike that pitted the American Railway Union vs. the Pullman Company and the federal government. The strike and boycott against trains triggered a nationwide transportation nightmare for freight and passenger traffic.
At its peak, the strike involved about 250,000 workers in more than 25 states. Riots broke out in many cities; President Grover Cleveland called in Army troops to break the strikers; more than a dozen people were killed in the unrest.
After the turbulence, Congress, at the urging of Cleveland in an overture to the labor movement, passed an act on June 28, 1894, making the first Monday in September “Labor Day.” It was now a legal holiday.
We’re still fighting
In the U.S., we’re still lacking healthy workplace conditions. We live in a country where bosses can bully their employees: harm the health of their subordinates through repeated mistreatment (false accusations, sabotage, and taking away responsibility without cause, for example) and get away with it – even though it demotivates employees and hurts organizations’ bottom lines.
So workplace bullying targets still fight for dignity and respect. We deserve to work for bosses who promote a sense of belonging, fair treatment, and empowerment.
Change the rules
If you live in Massachusetts, write to your legislators and demand that employers be held accountable for workplace bullying through legislation.
If you live outside Massachusetts, find out how to help end workplace bullying in your state.
Work culture is top-down. So if those at the top believe passive-aggressive behaviors will help weed out bad employees, then you’re at the mercy of bully bosses who master the art of subtle abuse. And subtle abuse gets rewarded. “Research by the University of Buffalo School of Management finds that … those who engage in harassment typically receive excellent reviews from their own supervisors and are exceptional at climbing the corporate ladder,” says Glynis Sweeny in her Alternet article “8 traits of toxic managers.”
The problem is that at best, you’re left feeling shamed, isolated, drained, and fearful of losing your job. At worst, your bully boss ruins your career, makes you question your value at work, and takes a toll on your personal life and health, leaving you with anxiety and depression.
Sweeny points to these 8 cues that you have a bully boss:
1. They don’t give constructive feedback. Good managers want you to succeed. That good intent comes with praise and constructive feedback – not just criticism. “A toxic manager will avoid creating such a rapport with you out of fear that they’ll let their guard down and reveal their actual contempt for you,” says Sweeny.
2. They nitpick. Some toxic managers always fault find. They will find anything trivial even if you just spent hours worth of time on quality work. “A supervisor may criticize you for a typographical error in a long report or complain about the choice of paper, while ignoring the great care and effort that went into producing it. Such feedback leaves employees second-guessing their skills and value,” explains Sweeny.
3. They give vague directions. Some bad bosses often expect workers to read their minds. So employees get into a lose-lose situation: they either risk looking incompetent by asking too many questions at the beginning or spend too much time trying to guess the expectations and then fail.
4. They’re “only joking.” Many toxic bosses use subtle teasing to demean you. And they’ll make it so subtle that you’ll seem foolish explaining that it’s part of their pattern of abuse.
5. They ignore you or play favorites. Sweeny shares a story of one employee whose boss used ignoring to bully. “At a meeting about the successful project she spearheaded, her boss listened attentively as one of her team members spoke, but fidgeted and looked at his phone when she took her turn. Later, her boss wrote an office-wide memo heaping praise on her coworker, while failing to mention her at all. Knowing she was not in her boss’s inner circle later impacted her morale, and she subsequently avoided taking leadership roles in teams and became increasingly despondent at work.” Ignoring rears its ugly head through “leaving you out of email loops, limiting your participation in general workplace conversations, or attending after-hours social functions with other workers while excluding you,” says Sweeny.
6. They want to be your “friend.” A toxic manager can be too friendly, following you on social media only to get dirt on you or see if you’re unhappy or looking for a new job.
7. They misuse your time off. Just because we now have cellphones, emailing, and texting doesn’t mean a boss should expect you to work during paid time off without notice. A boss also shouldn’t give you more work right before a vacation. “Bad bosses are also notorious for not having your back when you’ve taken sick, personal, or vacation time. It’s a crying shame when you take a week off of work only to come back to find yourself another week behind,” adds Sweeny.
8. They’re ass kissers. Bad managers kiss up and kick down. “[They] begin to cater to the whims of their superiors and confuse advocating for their team with their own self-promotion. Soon, they’re playing a political game of brown-nosing, manipulation, backstabbing, and narcissism,” explains Sweeny. “While it’s easy to portray the managers who take all the credit for themselves to be insecure and desperate, oftentimes they know this is the quickest way up the corporate ladder. [But] when toxic managers are pumping themselves up, they’re letting the team down. When push comes to shove, toxic managers will choose their superiors over their team, failing to be their advocate when organizational leaders come down on them. Worse yet, they may also shift blame from themselves and chide their own instead. Thus, those who work for ass kissers can be left vulnerable to disciplinary actions, layoffs, and even termination.”