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Bullies and Bullying

| May 19, 2020

by Jim Bruce

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. He may be reached at [email protected].]

I had not thought much about these two words – bullies and bullying – for many years until earlier this year when I was asked whether I had ever written a Tuesday Reading on the subject. I quickly responded that I didn’t think so and, as I often do, said that I’d take a look at the subject.

I grew up in a small, East Texas, farm town, population several hundred on a Saturday afternoon when everyone came into town from the surrounding farms. I was smaller than most of the boys in my class, and more interested in “school-book” learning than most. That did not make for the best relationships with other boys in the school. The two or three of us who wanted to maintain our focus on learning did so and did not become overly concerned with the rest of what was going on in the school. So, I did my own thing growing up and only rarely felt bullied, I suspect because I avoided the “bullies.” I was focused on learning and getting “A’s” on my report card.

When this question was asked a few months ago, I had to go back and ask what bullying really is. In a conversation with my kindergarten-teacher daughter as I was writing this, I learned that in Norway, bullying in school is a very big deal.1 Beginning with research initiated by Dan Olweus in the 1970s, Norway and Sweden have enacted laws against bullying in schools “so students could be spared the repeated humiliation implied in bullying.” The law there recognizes that bullying is not conflict but rather a form or abuse. Olweus defined bullying as repeated negative or malicious behavior by one or more individuals against a person who cannot defend him or herself.2 Formally, bullying is more than aggressive behavior. The behavior must be repeated and there must be a psychological imbalance of power between the two individuals.

In the U.S. News & World Report article “Battling Bullying in the Workplace,”3 the writers tell us that “workplace” bullying is “the same sort of name-calling, intimidation and ostracism some children experience on the playground.” Yet, the word “bullying” does not seem to be as present in our current culture as it once was. Perhaps, it is because we have come to use the word “harassment” in a more general sense to include bullying.

The Workplace Bullying Institute4 defines workplace bullying as the “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:

  • Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or
  • Verbal abuse.”

Other lists of bullying behaviors include ostracism, isolation, gaslighting, withholding resources and/or information, rumors that damage your reputation, and unfair evaluation of your work. Professor David Yamada, professor of law and director of the New Workplace Institute at the Suffolk University Law School, said that sexual harassment in the office should also be included as workplace bullying.3

Catherine Mattice5 defines workplace bullying this way: It is “unwanted, recurring aggressiveness that causes psychological and physical harm, and creates a psychological power imbalance between the bully and the targets.” She suggests that bullying has three components:

  • The act of bullying must be repeated. It does not refer to incivility or “having a bad day.” It needs to happen regularly, say once a week, over several weeks, etc.
  • The bullying causes psychological and physical harm both to the targets and to witnesses. Mattice says that people who self-identify as targets “experience anxiety, depression, stress and other issues, which ultimately results in physical problems.”
  • Bullying is about psychological power. “The bully will continue to push on the target more frequently and more aggressively until there is an understanding that the bully has power and the target does not. The abuse ultimately leaves the target feeling helpless.”

Dr. Mattice also notes that bullying behaviors can be divided into “three categories: aggressive communication (insulting remarks, yelling, not communicating), humiliation (spreading gossip, ignoring peers, harsh jokes), and manipulation of work (not communicating about work assignments, arbitrarily changing assignments).” The result, no matter the specific behavior, is a staff member who feels helpless.

It is also helpful to consider the perspective of the person bullying.  So often, the bullying behavior is a result of low self-concept or self-confidence on the part of the bully, and the bully’s felt need to control others.6

If you are the target of someone’s bullying behavior, it can be reassuring to know that the bullying is most often about the bully, not something you did or did not do.  Fortunately, a workplace climate opposed to bullying can help thwart this behavior.  Unfortunately, workplace climate can sometimes incentivize this behavior.  Be mindful of the workplace climate your actions create and whether it explicitly condones bullying.

With this understanding of what workplace bullying is, it’s also important to recognize the magnitude of the abuse. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2017 Bullying Survey5 of 1000 US employees (489 males and 519 women) reported that some 1 in 5 individuals surveyed indicated that he or she had been bullied in the workplace. And, similarly, 1 in 5 individuals indicated that they had witnessed another being bullied.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • 70% of the preparators were male.
  • Targets of both men and women bullies were 2/3-rds women and 1/3 men.
  • 61% of the bullies are “bosses.”
  • 29% of the targets remain silent about their experiences.
  • 60% of coworker responses to a colleague being bullied are hurtful to the bullying target.
  • 2/3-rds of those bullied leave their original job to stop the bullying.

Clearly, we live in a world where we are surrounded by bullies and victims of bullying. And, from my personal experience, I think we may be blind to much of it. That 60% of the responses of coworkers upon learning that a colleague has been bullied are experienced as hurtful, suggests another reason why being bullied is not discussed. We also, perhaps, justify our lack of awareness by saying we don’t want to get involved. Well, if you are the one who is being bullied, you are involved. So, what exactly might you do if you are being bullied? Here are several suggestions:

  1. Remain calm when someone begins to bully you. You cannot control what s/he says or does but you can control your response. It is difficult to remain quiet when being attacked. However, this is probably neither the right time or place to respond.
  1. Document the incident (and any future recurrences) in simple, clear, and unbiased language. What was said and or done by you and the perpetrator. Who else saw/heard the incident? Having such a document, even though it represents only one side of the incident, is extremely helpful in moving a discussion about the incident forward.
  1. Decide how you want to proceed as the person who was bullied. There is always the option to do nothing. You’ve documented the incident and concluded that it is not in your best interest to proceed at this time. And, if you are comfortable with that, that’s fine. You will have learned from the experience and be better prepared if a similar experience occurs in the future
  1. Plan your conversation well if you choose to discuss the incident with the bully.  Know what you want to say and be direct about what you do not like about the behavior. Think your response out carefully and, yes, rehearse it.  This could include discussing with a trusted colleague for perspective and suggestions.  Consider how you will respond to several possible reactions, and have an exit strategy for both a “good” ending as well as a “bad” one.
  1. Seek support.  Especially should the ending not go well, you may want to exercise your option of discussing the situation with the bully’s supervisor or services at your organization designed to support you in such situations. Doing this may be particularly important if the situation has been repeated multiple times or is particularly egregious.  

Dealing with a bully is never a welcomed task. However, I’ve come to believe that our world would be a better place if we were all alert to bullying words and actions, and took the time to gently address situations at hand.

I do trust that you and your team will have a wonderful week in spite of all that is happening in our world today.  .  .  .  jim


  1. Brief History of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, Violence Prevention Works, Hazelden Publishing.
  2. Facts about bullying among children and adolescents in Norway, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, September 2015.
  3. U.S. News & World Report, “Battling Bullying in the Workplace,” December 12, 2017.
  4. 2017 Workplace Bullying Survey June 2017, Workplace Bullying Institute, 2017.
  5. Catherine Mattice, A Closer Look: Workplace Bullying vs. Harassment,, September 2015.
  6. Valerie Cade, Work bullies: Debunking some myths about why people bully, Alberta RN, Vol 67, No. 6, Winter 2012.