Often jealous of their targets, workplace bullies treat targets like they’re nuts. “People who find themselves trapped in a bullying scenario can attest to the crazymaking, irrational nature of the mistreatment. Much of the harm caused by the abusive conduct stems from the shattering of targets’ beliefs about fairness. First, they are typically the high performers who unknowingly trigger the envy of perpetrators. Targets are aware of their work skill at a deep personal ontological level. Perpetrators come into their lives who determined to reject the agreed upon perceptions of the targets’ skills,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI).
How workplace bullies get away with their toxic behaviors
Here’s how others come to believe the target is the problem, not the bullying, according to WBI:
- Abuse of power. “Perpetrators often use their formal (by organizational rank) or informal power to state the obviously opposite perception about technically skilled targets. Though this defies reality, they convince organizational allies to believe them and not targets,” says WBI. “In simplest form, it becomes a ‘he said, he said’ deadlock.”
- Manipulation. “Most bullies who are bosses rely on support from higher up to add weight to their side. The shrewdest perpetrators use ingratiation over many years to convince their executive sponsors (their enablers) that they, the bullies, are indispensable,” explains WBI. “Further, if and when they are described as abusive or destructive by one or more targets in the future, the executive will defend her or his ‘indispensable’ perp by ignoring the target’s portrayal of a friend and colleague.”
- Mobbing. In situations where targets have multiple perpetrators and who are coworkers, several individuals who provide accounts of alleged bullying incidents simply outnumber the target. Mobs also deprive the target “of the chance to have her or his story corroborated by coworkers. Though few coworkers ever step up to offer support to targets, some do. When coworkers are the bullies, the potential source of support is lost. Gullible investigators (typically working inside the organization for another department) will have their judgment swayed by many against one and believe the tale that many tell even if those versions are not true,” says WBI.
“Conditions are not favorable when targets report the facts about what they have experienced at the hands of the favored perpetrator. After all, targets do bring negative news about people who typically outrank them,” adds WBI.
When targets aren’t believed
Studies show it’s honesty and integrity that often put a bullseye on a targets’ backs. “Such moral individuals are primed to experience letdowns and disappointments when organizations given equal or more credence to abusers and their supporters. The feeling is betrayal and injustice. There is a profound unfairness when lies routinely trump the truth,” explains WBI. Feeling injusticed often goes with feeling powerless.
In a 2014 poll, WBI found that “91 percent of targets are not believed when they describe their bullying experiences.” Like many cases of domestic violence and sexual harassment, we’re not believing recipients of abuse, despite the fact that perpetrators are more motivated to lie through performance appraisals over time.
“Exposing one’s vulnerability, shame, and humiliation (i.e. being emotionally wounded, depressed, spending weekends in bed, strained relationships with spouses or partners) is not the material on which lies are built. In some cases, disbelief of targets is couched in the benign sounding line ‘there are two sides to every story.’ At other times, the target is straightforwardly accused of lying. In 18 percent of cases, the disbelief is based on the notion that the conduct described is too outrageous to be believed,” says WBI.
“Perpetrators hiding behind closed doors think ahead. They want deniability. And when a power imbalance is present, the manager is the one believed while the target is not. To not be believed is an insult. It impugns the integrity of the person not believed. Insult added to the stress-related health injuries from suffering abuse at work,” explains WBI.
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.