3 Reasons Bullying Does Not Motivate Anyone at Work

3 Reasons Bullying Does Not Motivate Anyone at Work

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve no doubt heard of the recent firing of Rutger’s basketball coach Mike Rice for bullying his players during practices. Because Rice was caught verbally and physically abusing his players on tape, sports fans had a rare glimpse of bullying behavior broadcast on national television. As this Forbes article explains, yes, the behavior is pretty shocking.

What is even more shocking, however, is how complaints were ignored until these tapes became public. Facing embarrassment on the national stage, Rutgers finally fired the coach, with questions still playing out about why it took so long.

I know from my years of experience with executives as a conflict consultant that bullying and aggression never work as a long term strategy to motivate workers. It doesn’t matter if the environment is the basketball court, the operating room, or the boardroom.

Here are three reasons why bullying doesn’t motivate productivity.

Reason #1:  Fear Creates Stress not Action

Perhaps in the short term, fear from the aggressive tactics of a supervisor might work for some people. But this effect never lasts, because the stress of the worker quickly turns this into a negative. Workers quickly look for an escape plan, even a temporary escape plan. This ends up looking like more sick days, higher turnover, or “presenteeism”—that is, showing up to work but not being productive or doing the jobs they were hired to do.

Reason #2. It Undermines Confidence

Bullying undermines confidence, productivity and leadership. Coach Rice may have won some games some of the time but he probably lost some of his best and brightest opportunities because of his reputation. Those with options will not put themselves in the path of bullying behaviors. Instead they will go elsewhere.

Reason #3: It Doesn’t Work

As they say, “the proof is in the pudding.” In this case, Rice had a losing record. And if this were a different organization, I would predict nearly the same results. Any team of people who work together will have vastly different personalities and work styles. Punishing all of them with aggressive behavior as a “motivation technique” will not improve productivity by any existing measure. The data does not lie: bullying workers leads to poor results.

How Does This Keep Happening?

Unfortunately, as the case with coach Rice, reports to management of workplace bullying are often ignored. This happens for many reasons. Sometimes the aggressor in question has a favored relationship with his work peers, and they will believe him over those who complain. Sometimes management makes an attempt to resolve the situation with an ineffective meeting telling them to stop. (This never works) Sometimes, the aggressor is a key employee, and those in charge simply don’t know how to address the problem, so they do nothing.

Resolution Requires a Different Approach

An in-depth assessment of the situation to uncover the specific causes and effective strategies is the best approach. Every situation is different, but there are always more productive approaches than doing nothing. You don’t need to wait for an employee to produce evidence or a “game tape” to embarrass you into action.

For more solutions and tips on how to deal with workplace conflict and bullying behaviors, exclusive content, and detailed reports, sign up for my free newsletter.

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.


  • Carol

    This is an excellent article! How can employers be made more aware of this and trained to deal with it effectively? Should companies be required to create a safe method for reporting bullying incidents? As you say, it happens all too often in the workplace, and workers have no voice or way to protect themselves or their jobs. Companies end up losing valuable workers!

  • Great questions. How can employers create a safe way for reporting incidents? There are no safe ways to report harassment. As much as employers wish to think otherwise, in fact, employers are just that. It’s like having the fox guard the hen house. The employer has certain interests to maintain. Until they figure out that keeping the best and the brightest (even if they are targets or witnesses) is better than tolerating bullying (or other such behaviors), then we will have this conundrum.

  • Jesan Sorrells

    Kathleen, I’ve been following your work and I’m a big fan. My comment is thus: Bullying at work leads to lost productivity, higher rates of employee turnover and disengagement as well as opening employers to potential lawsuits and other HR issues. Small business owners and family owned businesses may think that bullying is only an issue for mid to large sized companies, but it’s not. The small business/family employer is at a loss because they are reacting to conflicts in relationships in the workplace that are reminiscent of the way in which they respond to conflicts in their personal lives, thus creating a cycle that only an expert can successfully extricate them from.