3 Reasons Bullies Keep Getting Ahead at Work

3 Reasons Bullies Keep Getting Ahead at Work

Ever experience workplace bullying behavior at work where the aggressor seems to get ahead instead of reprimanded, re-educated, or reduced for their behavior? Ever wonder how this keeps happening?

It’s not just you. An article about a new study from the University at Buffalo School of Management seems to shed light on why.


Reason #1: Bullies are Good at Playing Both Sides

According to the study, many workplace bullies are good at behaving differently for management than the people they are bullying—displaying intelligent, manipulative, even charismatic behavior.

One of the authors of the study Darren Treadway, PhD, remarks, “Many bullies can be seen as charming and friendly, but they are highly destructive and can manipulate others into providing them with the resources they need to get ahead.”

I can confirm that in my experience over the years working with people that are aggressive, or display workplace conflict or bullying behaviors, that many of them seem like completely different people when working with management than they are with people they are targeting.

That is why management is often shocked when targets report the behavior, because in their experience they often never experience the aggression themselves.


Reason #2: Bullies are Socially Smarter Than We Think

Though we often don’t like to think of workplace bullies as smarter than the average worker, the study indicates this is often the case.

According to the article “The results showed a strong correlation between bullying, social competence and positive job evaluations.”

In other words, to pull off all this aggression without being caught or noticed by management requires a high degree of social skill. Enough to be aggressive, and still get positive job evaluations.


Reason #3: Work Evaluations are Flawed and Fail to Screen for Bullying Behavior

It stands to reason that if a workplace evaluation is thorough enough, than it would catch or use a criteria to screen for bullying behavior. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

““Employers can work to reduce the prevalence by finding organizationally appropriate ways for employees to achieve their goals, by incorporating measures of civility and camaraderie into performance evaluations, and by helping staff to develop the skills needed to manage bullies,” says Treadway.”

Though I respect Treadway for suggesting measures of “civility and camaraderie” be incorporated into workplace evaluations, I know this is often easier said than done.


Bullies and Their Perceived Value

The bottom line I would add to this research is that in my experience with companies grappling with bullying behavior, the person who is bullying others often brings SOME value to the company. That value may be real or just perceived. In either case, the company does not want to toss that person aside. Sometimes they will isolate him or her—removing line management responsibilities, keeping the bullying person out of meetings, having the bullying person report to some C level person. Whatever the tentative solution, the reason the person stays on, and the reason I am hired to help curb the behavior, is because the company wants to keep the aggressor.

At the end of the day, companies must be willing to take a hard look at even their best performing employee’s bullying behavior, because the costs of workplace bullying in terms of lost productivity, turnover, bad reputation, and more recently, litigation, are enormous. Bullying behavior can be amended so companies have two choices—keep the bully and isolate him or her, OR, bring in a specialized coach who can help amend the behavior and bring harmony back to the company.

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I’ve been a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.