“Bullying is demeaning, ostracizing, disempowering, cruel, threatening, humiliating, untruthful, and unrelated to work itself,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). In a 2014 poll, WBI asked respondents what the most offensive aspects of the bullying experience are. They are, in order of popularity:
Being accused of incompetence when I possessed more technical skills than my accuser
“[Targets] posed a threat for the thin-skinned perpetrators who appear less capable by comparison,” says WBI. “The most offensive act was the bully’s lie that the target was incompetent. The claim is dissonant with everything the target has known about her- or himself for an entire work career. It would be laughable were it not for the power the perpetrator yields to act in accordance with the lie. Soon after leveling the false charges (and they are false by objective criteria), perpetrators rely on human resources support to start a performance improvement plan (PIP). The PIP itself is humiliating but doubly harmful because it is not based on facts or data.”
Being humiliated in front of coworkers and feeling ashamed though I did nothing wrong
“Once an accusation of incompetence is made, nothing the target says will be believed by management. Being humiliated in front of coworkers triggers and justifies coworkers’ social exclusion directed at the target, their former friend. And each of the tactics generates a great deal of shame,” explains WBI.
Management ignoring my complaint
When managers ignore complaints of workplace bullying, the bullied target is made to believe that the complaint is illegitimate. “The person is made to feel that he or she had no right to feel wronged…. By ignoring the complaint or treating it with indifference, management, speaking for the employer, is saying that the problem with the bully is not real or is not as big as the target believes it is. Management support for the bully trumps all of the harm the perpetrator caused the target…. When management abdicates its responsibility for the bullies behavior, it shifts the blame from leadership to a lower level, HR, problem. In fact, bullying can be resolved only by leadership, not HR,” says WBI.
Having coworkers ostracize, exclude, and reject me
“The lies, humiliation, shame and exclusion are the most insufferable aspects of bullying and define the experience,” explains WBI.
Retaliation that followed my complaint
Present in 99 percent of cases according to a WBI study, retaliation is inevitable. “Senior managers tend to punish complainants who dare to reveal negative information about bullies in lower or middle management with strong personal bonds with those senior managers,” says WBI.
Other responses (in order of popularity)
Having coworkers not support me
Not being left alone to do my work without meddling
HR not treating my complaint seriously
Losing my job
Told to be sympathetic towards the bully’s issues
Stigmatized as weak or as victim
Told to toughen up
My inability to get a comparable next job
The bad reference that prevented getting a next job
Denial of unemployment
Denial of workers comp claim
So you have a reputation of being a go-to person at work. One who gets things done and gets them done well. One who wants your organization to be great.
But suddenly you look around, and it’s the selfish, incompetent ones clawing their way to the top while you’re stuck reporting to them, making less money than them, and getting bullied by them.
So what’s the deal? How did this illogical power structure become so common?
- They’re great at maneuvering. They kiss up and kick down, so those who promote them either don’t see the damage they cause or don’t care about the damage they cause, but everyone else does.
- They’re entitled. When bullies simply take power and feel entitled to dictate, belittle, control, or manipulate targets by calling them “sensitive” or “emotional,” and others believe the dismissal of the targets rather than hold the bullies accountable, bullies get ahead. But it’s not just about believing bullies. It’s about seeing sensitivity as negative rather than human or that the bullies are insensitive, regardless of how their targets react.
- Incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people underrate 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.” The result: the competent workers believe they’re average, while the incompetent workers believe they’re above average, and everyone believes both viewpoints, often positioning the incompetent workers at the top.
- Their bosses are the same way. Workplace cultures start at the top. If those at the top don’t tolerate bullying, it won’t happen. But when those at the top are bullies, they tend to hire other incompetent kiss ups who validate their own behaviors of getting by on ego rather than merit.
The good news: we don’t have to resign ourselves to the way so many workplaces run. We can educate others on these patterns so there’s a collective awareness of them and we begin to see them as negative and unacceptable.
There are two effects that David Yamada, Suffolk Law professor and author of the Healthy Workplace Bill, describes in his “Minding the Workplace” blog. These two effects keep the best workers from climbing as high in the corporate ladder as their often less competent colleagues:
Advocate Torii Bottomley observed that often a subordinate with high competence and high ethics will report to a supervisor with low competence and low ethics. The subordinate may pose a threat to the often insecure supervisor. Professor Yamada goes on to say that the best people often do not rise to the top. He quotes an address on leadership to West Point cadets by William Deresiewicz, who says that “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.”
Professor Yamada points out through the Dunning-Kruger effect that incompetent people overrate themselves, and competent people overrate others. 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.”
There are two main results from these two effects:
The hi-lo combo. Highly competent and ethical employees either shine, get bullied, and look for new jobs to escape the bullying or diminish their skill levels to not put bullseyes on their backs.
The Dunning-Kruger effect. The incompetent demand promotions, while the competent miss out on them and don’t see themselves as leaders.
We don’t have to resign ourselves to these two effects. Throughout history, cultures change when people begin to question the status quo and bring unjust situations to light. Just as sexual harassment law didn’t get rid of sexual harassment but instead made it much less common by serving as a reminder of workplace expectations and changing work cultures, the Healthy Workplace Bill, when passed into law, will change how we view competence and accepted behavior in the workplace.
We’ve already seen the increased demand for these changes. With the furthest progress in the history of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill and a buzz in the State House about the bill thanks to your efforts, we’re well on our way to improving workplaces. We’re on the brink of something great and historical, and we need as many people as possible to continue to contact your legislators and urge them to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill to help stop workplace bullying in Massachusetts.