Toxic workplaces are created by toxic people. The most toxic person of all is a bully. It’s even worse when that person is a boss with power and authority over you or others.
I’ve investigated workplace bullies for 30 years but it wasn’t until I witnessed a bully in action recently that I fully appreciated the destructive reality of bullies and their detrimental consequences to the work, the environment, and, most importantly, to their victims.
Sometimes it’s difficult to decipher if your boss is just difficult and demanding or truly an unfixable workplace bully. Here are the signs of the latter:
1 Work is chaos. The rules are always unclear, and you feel like you are running on a hamster wheel to satisfy the whim of the bully. Nothing is ever right or good enough. Because you are trying to meet the ever-changing expectations, you are held accountable (a/k/a constantly criticized) for not meeting expectations that change on the fly or don’t exist at all.
2 Everyone fears being berated. You can’t cross the bully. The bully’s means of communication is to berate, humiliate and intimidate the target. In a recent investigation, the bully referred to his subordinate by her first name while he berated her, saying things to his subordinate Diane like, “Does Diane know she is terrible at her job? Does Diane know she is a terrible employee? Does Diane know that no one else will ever hire her?” Sometimes the bully does this publicly in meetings with other subordinates. Everyone is afraid to speak up or give an opinion that differs from the bully. The bully must be always right. Never wrong.
3 The bully controls everything. The bully is often described as a control freak who must control everyone and everything. The bully must control all meetings, all decisions, all everything — and must always be the smartest person in the room.
4 Morale is low because of the bully. Even employees who are not the target of the bully are impacted by the bully’s behavior. Everyone who works under the bully knows what the bully is doing, and they are just hoping the bully’s wrath doesn’t come around to them.
5 The relationship between the bully and target is abusive. Frequently the relationship is described as similar to someone who is being subjected to domestic violence — where the abuser delights in the abuse and then has a tinge of guilt resulting in a strange reaction of kindness and support for a minute. This confuses the target into thinking things will change or get better. They won’t.
6 The bully tells gossip and lies to keep control. In order to gain control, the bully must make sure that employees can’t work cohesively together. This means the bully will triangulate by telling lies to make people not trust each other and to make the target appear incompetent or to make sure people dislike the target. Employees will tell me during investigations they were surprised that on their first day the manager told them seemingly private information about the new employee’s peers — that Fred is getting a divorce and Alice has bipolar. Even if the information isn’t true, it’s designed to groom the person into trusting the bully.
7 The bully is erratic and impulsive. You never know what version of the bully you’ll get every day. This keeps everyone on their toes worrying about making the bully upset. Employees have a sense of dread coming to work.
8 The bully wants you to know he’s untouchable. Whether in reality or perception, the bully is untouchable — at least that’s how it feels to employees. Sometimes the bully actively touts this narrative by bragging about their status, their relationship with the board or the president or the senior elected official. Because the bully is often very competent and is a master at managing up, most people believe that the organization will never remove the person due to his or her value or relationship with senior leaders.
9 The bully sometimes yells and is always aggressive and disrespectful. Many times, but not always, the bully will raise his or her voice and yell. Some bullies engage in their abuse with a smile on their face. We call them “nice nasty.”
10 The bully has impacted your health and feelings of self-worth. Give it to the bullies — they are effective. They are masterful at achieving their goal — to make your life miserable so the bully’s life seems better. It’s sick. And it causes people to actually get sick with depression, anxiety, and severe mental health trauma. Their friends and family are worried about them. Everyone is telling them to quit but they can’t. The target has lost all self-confidence to sell himself or herself to another employer.
Employees working with a bully are trapped, and in an incredibly abusive and toxic environment that is impacting their entire lives.
If you are made aware of bullying behaviors in your organization — listen and investigate. If it turns out you have a person engaging in bullying behavior — take action. The bully must be terminated immediately. The bully is not fixable — and this is evident during the investigation where they dismiss concerns from employees. Returning a bully to an organization after an investigation will only embolden the bully.