5 Reasons Bosses Ignore Bullies

5 Reasons Bosses Ignore Bullies

Do you often wonder why bosses seem to ignore bullying behavior at work? Ever wonder why he or she won’t stand up for you when others are quite obviously bullying you at work?  After all, it’s obvious to you that you are being bullied, shouldn’t it be obvious to the managers around you?


Reason #1: Bosses think Conflict is Helpful

As a first reaction, managers often downplay workplace conflict because they believe bullying behavior is part of a high performance orientation culture, where both high accomplishments and explicit communication is expected. Perhaps they are misreading the situation as banter, or venting, or office politics they do not need to be involved in.

Whatever the initial reasons, the outcome is generally the same. From the manager’s perspective, the bullying behavior doesn’t register as something harmful enough to the business to warrant any real action. Though the cost of workplace bullying has been documented, the perception that it is harmless still lingers, and bosses continue to downplay the behavior.

Reason #2: The Boss Favors the Bully and Repels the “Victim”

Even if the boss is notified, there may be an investigation bias:  Investigations often operate on the assumption that both persons involved have equal facts and therefore there can be an outcome based on exploring those “equal” facts. Gary Namie, expert on workplace bullying behaviors wrote: “The “justifications” for it include distorted perceptions — the target asked for it, the abusive mistreatment was merely correction of performance deficits by a fair manager, and worst of all, if the behavior was unwanted, the target should have simply told the aggressor to stop. Bullies and their apologists have opinions, all designed to retain organizational power for abusers.”

Make no mistake—this kind of hands-off leadership is terrible management, but it is not intentional. They are in denial of what is happening around them, and it will take the inevitable wake-up call of damage from the bullying  to their bottom line before they open their eyes.


Reason #3: Bosses Are Manipulated by the Bully

Bullies are VERY good at playing both sides, and are often seen as “stars”.

According to  one 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 bullying behaviors, that many seem like completely different people with management than they are with people they are targeting.

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

In these cases the boss is truly oblivious, and the bullying behaviors are invisible to them.


Reason #4 – The Boss is Afraid of Conflict

This reason above all others I see as the most common and destructive. Because the boss is afraid of conflict, he or she will do virtually anything to avoid a confrontation.

What are the sources of the fear of conflict? They are many, and can be terrifying to someone in charge. They might be afraid of being exposed. They might be afraid of being wrong, and the embarrassment or loss of status that tends to accompany “being wrong.” They could be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings with what needs to be said, so they avoid it altogether. They could simply be afraid of not knowing what to say when an uncomfortable or difficult conversation comes to light.

The irony of it all is that the fear and avoidance of conflict actually makes the situation worse by causing MORE conflict. For example, someone afraid to ask for what they want from their staff will be constantly frustrated when the staff doesn’t deliver. A manager afraid of confronting a bully will cause 10 times the conflict by ignoring the problem. The vacuum left by abandoning an important issue will be filled with gossip, lies, power plays, or desperate strategy by the rest of the staff. If left by itself, the conflict will grow, multiply, and cause real damage.


Reason #5 – The Boss Doesn’t Understand Bullying

One reason I created my workplace bully conflict model was to help targets as well as bosses understand the type of bullying behavior they have to manage. Most bullying behaviors are mistakenly grouped together as the same –  a “One Bucket” category with a few rather ineffective solutions. You might have a boss who tried some of the obvious interventions and had no success. Once they are out of options they just give up. However, there are myriad tactics for handling bullying IF you understand what type you’re dealing with.


Has This Happened to You?

Do you have a boss that is ignoring the bullying behavior in your office? How are you dealing with it? Let us know by commenting below.

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For more on handling difficult conversations, read my ebook, “Stop Arguing & Start Working: 6 Steps to Being Confident, Calm and Capable During Difficult Conversations At Work.” The book is available now.

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.

  • jp61

    The boss that was ignoring and being a bully himself is gone and will not be back – but now I am dealing with the after math of his destruction. I feel like a school kid who has been bullied I feel like I am going to throw up just at the thought of going to work…I am home today because of that feeling. Now the new management does not understand what the old boss did….so it is another battle once again….The physical pain I am in caused by stress is sometimes more that I can bear.