Bullying at Work…or Strategic Abrasive Behavior?

Bullying at Work: “It Feels Like He’s Out to Get Me”

I had a client, Tom, a systems engineer in a startup tech company, who called me for help. He was convinced that his colleague was bullying him to force him out of his job. He was constantly yelling at Tom in front of his colleagues, belittling his work, accusing him of gross negligence and setting him up with assignments that were useless to the goals of the department. He felt the dread building up inside of him for a long time, and now the dread was continuous.  “Why is this person singling me out?” “Is he trying to get me to quit?”, he asked. “He is definitely making me sick and putting me in a bad light with my boss, colleagues and the leaders of the company.”

I knew immediately that this colleague was in the “Strategic Abrasive Behavior” conflict category.

Bullying or Strategic Abrasive Behavior: What’s the Deal?
In general workplace bullying is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

A helpful definition, but not exactly what Tom was experiencing. Perhaps Tom was being singled out, but the goal was not personal, it was political. Tom was dealing with someone who was displaying Strategic Aggression.  There are five kinds of conflict commonly displayed aggressive behavior in the workplace. Strategic Abrasive Behavior is one of them.

What is Strategic Abrasive Behavior?
Strategic Abrasive Behavior is when someone is targeted for attacks because the aggressor feels threatened and wants to eliminate the competition. If the target transfers, for instance, the aggressor will be happy to be friends with the person. Once the target is out of the way, things settle down. One of the confusing elements of this is that the Strategic Aggressor does not behave this way with others. This isolates the target because people do not believe what the target is saying. They do not understand how someone could be so nice and cooperative with them and yet so aggressive with the target.

Again, this because Strategic Aggressors only use verbal attacks on work colleagues that they perceive to be competitors. In Tom’s case, he knew more about the projects than his colleague. He was better trained, had more experience and was truly seemed to be a threat to the colleague. He took credit for Tom’s work, and seemed to need to keep Tom “in his place” to prevent others from uncovering the truth about Tom’s superior abilities. Intimidation, gossiping, and taking credit are behaviors a Strategic Aggressor uses to win.

A boss is equally likely to be a Strategic Aggressor as a colleague. Oftentimes a boss is threatened by a subordinate. I know it doesn’t make sense to have your subordinate look bad, but it does happen.

In what Types of Organizations Does Strategic Abrasive Behavior Take Place?
Strategic Abrasive Behavior is a frequent occurrence in highly competitive fields such as academia, law, medicine, and other sciences.  This can often be seen in high pressure sales organizations and law firms where aggressive behavior is considered a vital asset to win. In Tom’s case the company was a tech start-up. The pressure was high, the stakes were higher, and everyone was competing for precious dollars. When employees are experiencing Strategic Abrasive Behavior, the “attacker” may see the “target” as a competitor, and the attacker is trying to “win.”

Why Does Strategic Abrasive Behavior Happen?
People on the receiving end of Strategic Abrasive Behavior often work for companies that value aggressive behavior. Does this describe your organization? If your company holds aggressive behavior as a positive trait and a legitimate way of getting things done, top performers or frightened bosses are almost guaranteed to be aggressive. If your company has limited resources, it may reward aggressive behavior with certain perks, because you and your colleagues believe there is a positive relationship between aggression and success.

What Happens to Targets of Strategic Abrasive Behavior?
This is a painful situation.  Any number of bad things can happen.

  • The target’s reputation may be sullied, because they are forced into an aggressive contest in which they are probably losing. The aggressor is likely bad-mouthing them as part of the strategy to “win”. This makes the target look bad to his or her colleagues.
  • Aggressors may sabotage the target’s work in an effort to make them look bad, and make the attacker look good. It may seem like childish behavior, but from my experience this is not an uncommon occurrence. It may also seem like a simple “bully” maneuver – but remember, the attacker is not doing this just to make the target feel bad.  He or she is doing it to get ahead, to win.
  • The target may be banished, or ostracized by the aggressors.  Feeling on the outside looking in at your own place of work can be a miserable experience.
  • It’s possible you might be condoning it.  Management is usually unwilling or unable to help targets, which further isolates the target.
  • Management may judge the target negatively if they complain about the aggression. If there is no company policy prohibiting bullying, how likely will it be that anyone can help?

If you are the HR representative or the boss of the boss of the alleged bully, can you help straighten things out without professional advice?

Consequences of Strategic Abrasive Behavior for You, The Employer
If left unchecked, you are at serious risk for losing your key creatives and innovators, as they will probably not stay to be treated this way.  With such high level of inter-office competition, you may also lose the sense of teamwork as things quickly devolve into an “every person for themselves” mode of working. Productivity will actually decrease, because your workers who are left will be focused on each other instead of the work at hand.  Many organizations only realize how Strategic Abrasive Behavior impacts their bottom line once the damage has already been done.

What’s the Fix?
Policies might help you when you pursue action against the strategic aggressor, but without the support of your top management, the culture of the organization will be more powerful than any action against the aggressor. Dealing with Strategic Abrasive Behavior requires a very delicate balance between your company culture and the needs of the target.

Why it Pays to Deal with Strategic Abrasive Behavior
The economic consequences of Strategic Abrasive Behavior are multiplied by the brain drain, a reputation that keeps you from hiring the best and the brightest, and most recently litigation that costs companies hundreds of thousands in defense and settlements.

The Five Types of Conflict
There are five types of interpersonal conflict within organizations. Strategic Abrasive Behavior is one type. Each type requires its own tailored solution. If you treat all workplace conflicts the same way, you have a 1 in 5 chance of success….unless you have the appropriate evaluation.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, 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. You can contact me here.