Bullying at Work…or Strategic Aggression?

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

That guy picking on you at work, harassing you in front of your colleagues, belittling your work…he’s out to get you.  You just know it.  You’ve felt the dread building up inside of you for a long time and now the dread is continuous.  Why is this person singling you out?  Is he just a malicious bully who was trained in the schoolyard?

Bullying or Not? What’s the Deal?

Perhaps…but perhaps not.  It is certainly possible that you may be dealing with a malicious bully, who simply enjoys hurting others.  But another possibility is that you are dealing with someone who is displaying strategic aggression.  There are five kinds of conflict commonly displayed in the workplace.  Strategic aggression is one of them.

What is Strategic Aggression?
Strategic aggression is most commonly displayed as verbal attacks on work colleagues that are perceived to be competitors by the attacker.

Where does Strategic Aggression Take Place?
Strategic aggression is a frequent occurrence in highly competitive fields such as academia, law, medicine, and other sciences.  If you are experiencing strategic aggression, you are viewed as the competitor, and the attacker is trying to “win.”

Why Does Strategic Aggression Happen?
If you are on the receiving end of strategic aggression, the company you work for probably values aggressive behavior.  This can often be seen in high pressure sales organizations and law firms where aggressive behavior is considered a vital asset to win.  If the company holds aggressive behavior as a positive trait and legitimate way of getting things done, top performers are almost guaranteed to be aggressive.  If the company has limited resources, it may reward aggressive behavior with certain perks, because they believe there is a positive relationship between aggression and success.

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

  • Your reputation may be sullied, because you are forced into an aggressive contest in which you are probably losing.  The aggressor is likely bad-mouthing you as part of the strategy to eliminate you. This makes you look bad to your colleagues.
  • Your work may be sabotaged in an effort to make you 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, your attacker is not doing this just to make you feel bad.  He or she is doing it to get ahead, to win.
  • You may be banished, or ostracized.  Feeling on the outside looking in at your own place of work can be a miserable experience.
  • Management may condone it, too, and is usually unwilling or unable to help you which further isolates you.
  • Management may judge you negatively, if you complain about the aggression. Even if they have a “no bullying policy”, they likely will not enforce it nor appreciate that you came forward for help.

What Can You Do?
You have a few choices.

  1. You can stay and handle it.  This means you have to play the game and “swim with the sharks”.   You’ll have to toughen up and start competing in the aggressive workplace you find yourself in.
  2. You can decide that this culture is not what you had in mind for a work environment, and you can seek employment elsewhere.  It may not seem fair that you must be the one to leave when others seem to be “at fault” for such abrasive behavior, but you must accept the work culture for what it is.  Trying to change an aggressive work culture is a recipe for insanity.
  3. Then there’s the third choice…

Bullying or Strategic Aggression: Either Way Get Help

In a situation of strategic aggression, you need specific strategies and tactics to overcome the aggression if you wish to stay.  You’ll also need wisdom and understanding to appreciate and evaluate your situation.  And, you need guidance to help you, if you want to develop an “exit” strategy and leave the company for a better situation.

Using the services of a professional conflict consultant can help you get back on your feet and be pro-active about your next move. Be sure you work with someone who understands what you are experiencing and how to handle it. Contact me.

  • Blackcat64013

    The bully is better described as an organizational psychopath. This person is going to cost the organization in a multitude of ways. If you decide to leave, make sure you lodge a claim for worker’s compensation for psychological injury. Getting help certainly should be the first step before you do anything else. Do not wait until you are destroyed in body and soul!

  • Dear Blackcat,
    I respectfully disagree with using the word “psychopath” to describe strategic aggressive bullying type behavior. In fact the problem with demonizing super aggressive people by calling them names is that it takes away power. If everyone is a psychopath, what is to be done? Not much. Such a description closes off all options for the targets and for the managers. In MHO the biggest problem with the field of conflict assessment is reducing the causes of the conflict to ONE perspective.

    This problem is exactly why I created a typology system. My system is based on a detailed analysis of over 20 years of research into workplace aggression conducted by the best social scientists in the world. My system takes into account Character Disorder as one type of aggressive person. So, when there is a character disorder, we can deal with it. But when other circumstances exist-strategic aggression/cultural influences, for example, or abrasive/unconscious aggressive behavior, or “stick” leadership and management style, I can propose and execute effective interventions.

    The greatest contribution we can make is to empower employers, perpetrators and targets to understand their options and proceed accordingly. We cannot do this with a single POV of workplace aggressive behaviors.