Malicious or Classic Bullying Behavior

Malicious or Classic Bullying

Malicious or Classic Bullying behaviors are those behaviors that everyone refers to when they think of bullying in schools or in the workplace. While “malicious” is becoming the common name for all bullying behavior, I like to think of this type of behavior as Classic, that is, the bullying by which all other bullying types are measured.

Here’s an example of Classic Bullying from my experiences as a Conflict Consultant.

I received a call from a woman engineer working in a natural resources company. She was recently hired into a team-lead position so had a fair amount of power and authority as well as responsibility. Being a woman in a traditionally male dominated company was a challenge, but it was not among her most serious challenges. Her real challenge came from another woman in another department. This other person, let’s call her Sue, was commonly known to be high-strung and abrasive but my new client suspected she was more than that. And it turns out my client was right.

Sue was a Classic Bully. She was malicious, aggressive, and manipulative. She set out to harm others. Anyone who challenged her in any way became one of her targets. Most recently Sue had someone fired. For all intents and purposes the person she had fired was doing a fantastic job. So good that she was looking bad with other teams. Granted the person fired wasn’t politically savvy with Sue, but nonetheless he was the target of Classic Bullying. How do we know? Well because when my client called she was the target. Our work together helped keep my client from being fired. The work was intense. We had to repair her reputation, confront the Classic Bully, and play politics by keeping quiet and NOT participating in the rumor mill about Sue’s behavior and competency.


DEFINITION of Malicious or Classic Bullying Behavior

Malicious: characterized by malice; intending or intended to do harm.

Bullying: deliberate acts of aggression and intimidation designed to hurt, even crush, another person.


ANY organization can have Malicious Bullying. Although certain fields certainly have more bullying as part of the culture, such as:

  • law

  • academia

  • science

  • sales

  • services

  • organizations with weak or absent leadership at the top

Malicious Bullying can happen in virtually any workplace. The behavior of the Malicious Bully may intimidate everyone even though it is expressly targeted at one person.


  • Seems fearful and seemingly paranoid

  • Often complain about being victimized by others (in particular those they are targeting)

  • Responds with extreme aggression against any perceived challenge or threat

  • Deliberate, malicious actions

  • Targets one (or sometimes more persons) for abuse

  • Ues demeaning, hurtful words

  • Tries intimidation tactics

  • Often threatens

  • Excludes targets from meetings

  • Changes assignments last minute

  • Sets unworkable deadlines

  • Gossips, lies, and exaggerates to appear credibile but are mostly fanciful


  • High turnover

  • Key employees leave

  • Overall productivity goes down

  • Significant time is lost investigating and managing the behavior

  • Lawsuits

  • Serious impact to bottom line


  • Think politically-this is not your ordinary workplace conflict

  • Avoid the rumor or gossip mill

  • Strategize if and when any reports/complaints will be filed

  • Let the classic bully destroy him or her self

  • Create a support team to help weather the assault

  • Keep working

  • Transfer or leave

  • Document with focus on policies violated and costs to company bottom line


People who display bullying behavior often target one person at a time (or perhaps one person in each work team or department). They often make their target the subject of public ridicule. The better or more competent their target, the more attacks. They attack one target, then move on to the next. They fear excellence in others and view people as either friends or enemies. The true bully is very hard to manage and a combination of responses will be needed to manage the behavior and stop the abuse.

Malicious Bullying refers to deliberate acts of aggression and intimidation designed to hurt, even crush, another person. The behavior does not come from any competition or lack of consciousness. It stems from a deep need to hurt another person. The Malicious Bully will target one person for abuse. This behavior can take many forms, like excluding someone from a meeting, destroying their credibility, gossiping, and relentless attacks. Sometimes it is changing assignments at the last minute, or setting unworkable deadlines. Malicious Bullies relish the idea that they are making the target of the abuse sick and they long for the day the target quits.


Seems fearful and seemingly paranoid

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, many Malicious Bullies live in fear. Many feel the world is truly out to get them and they must fight their way through a an unforgiving environment. However, from a target’s perspective, this does nothing to mitigate the bully’s aggressive attacks and awful behavior.

Often complain about being victimized by others (in particular those they are targeting)

It’s an ironic twist that malicious bullies feel victimized by the very people they are targeting. Remember, Malicious Bullies are frightened and they see threatening behavior everywhere. They respond with bullying but never make the connection between their behavior and what they are experiencing from others.


Responds with extreme aggression against any perceived challenge or threat

Observing a malicious bully is fascinating because they always seem “over the top”. Remember they live in fear so most things in life are fear triggers. So, their responses are intense and vicious. Malicious bullies seem to have perfected the art of verbal assaults.


Deliberate, malicious actions

Unlike some forms of bullying behavior – Malicious Bullying is deliberate and fully intentional. Actions are pre-meditated and often bullies will attempt to inflict as much harm as possible. Malicious bullies are fully aware how their behavior impacts others.


Targets one person for abuse

Malicious bullies target one person at a time for abuse. Though there is generally just one target, everyone around the target or the bully may feel generally intimidated by his or her actions. Sometimes a bully will rally others to also attack the target, though joining up with a bully will not protect you from possibly becoming a future target.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, targets are often confident, competent workers who excel. Bullies fear excellence, and will often try to tear down “stars.”


Demeaning, hurtful words

If a bully’s words seem cruel, it is because they are. Malicious bullies will use what they know about you and any perceived shortcoming to cut you down, insult you, or make you feel “less than.” They thrive on seeing you hurt.


Tries intimidation tactics

Malicious bullies will use threats to scare you and to hurt you. They both want to scare you into submission, and also make you hurt and feel powerless.  These threats may by physical, or be threats to your work or career. Bullies often use this tactic successfully, and will be excellent at finding a threat that is personal and hurtful. Malicious bullies may also intimidate you with their body language, positioning, or aggressive posture.


Excludes someone from meetings

One way to isolate a target and make them easier to bully is to separate them from projects or the rest of the group. Bullies often exclude targets from vital work functions, and attempts to weaken them by keeping them out of the loop.


Changes assignments last minute

If your boss or manager is a malicious bully, another way to sabotage your work or hurt your reputation is to change assignments at the last minute. This is a deliberate move to frustrate you and make you look incompetent.


Sets unworkable deadlines

Bullies may set you up to fail, in order to make you look bad in the long run. It’s not your imagination – they may actually be angling to get you fired, transferred, or simply frustrated. Many times targets will run themselves ragged attempting to meet deadlines that are simply impossible to meet.


Gossips or destroys credibility

In order to rally others to their cause of destroying you, Malicious Bullies will enroll others through gossip or deceitful actions to hurt you or any other target. Similar to Strategic Abrasives, they may use an existing character trait, such as your gender or race, as a verbal weapon when talking to your peers or superiors. They will not hesitate to use very personal attacks. Or they may exaggerate or invent something that is completely untrue in order to hurt your reputation. Unlike Strategic Abrasives, Malicious Bullies are doing this not to “win”, but to hurt you or get you fired. It is personal.


Lose key employees

Your star employees will leave first. They are top producers and won’t put up with this kind of behavior. Once one leaves, others will follow, and then you have a real problem on your hands.


High turnover

Everyone despises a bully, not just the star employees. Many more will leave the organization if they can, and risk financial uncertainty rather than consistently deal with a bully.


Decrease productivity

Bullies poison the work environment, and makes it difficult for others to even get basic things accomplished. Most will withdraw from the bully and try to find ways of working around them. With bullies often in key positions, this can cause severe dysfunction, and all productivity and collaboration will suffer.


Lose time investigating and managing the behavior

It takes a lot of time to manage a bully effectively, and even more time if it is done ineffectively. Investigations consume even more time and resources, even if they are done correctly. This all sucks productivity away from doing the tasks at hand.


Suffer lawsuits

If left unchecked, litigious complaints are highly probable. Though bullying isn’t exactly against the law, some of the behaviors associated with bullying may cross a few ethical and legal boundaries, particularly if any of the targets of bullying belong to a protected class. The pain that targets feel is real: if nothing is done, expect the backlash and complaints to increase.


Damage to bottom line

Lost productivity, high turnover, lawsuits and lost time all add up to real damage to your bottom line. Though damage is not always apparent immediately, over the long term it will be significant and possibly crippling to the entire organization.


Think politically

Classic workplace bullying is not your ordinary workplace conflict. It is critical to think strategically. First, figure out what’s happening. Not just what is being done but the consequences. Think big-picture, long-term. When you’re feeling confused and vulnerable—those are clues. Those feelings are important. That’s when you should call for help. Get a coach who can help you dissect the issues and work up a plan of action for you.


Avoid the rumor or gossip mill

Likely folks are talking about this bully, and you now have your own experiences to add to the grist mill. Try and avoid this for two reasons. First, it is guaranteed someone is going to report back to the bully that you’re complaining. That just gives the bully more fuel. And, second, participating in the gossip won’t make you feel better. It will make you feel less powerful and more confused. The victim mindset is a serious blow to confidence.


Strategize if and when any reports/complaints will be filed

Making a complaint about bullying is always a problem. Even in good companies with committed HR professionals, if the bully is well positioned (good strong alliances), and if he or she is a seasoned classic bully, then you can expect rational and reasoned justifications for the behaviors you’re complaining about. And because of those alliances you won’t have much of a chance. The rare exception is if the complaint is about sex harassment and vulgar language. Big strong companies with hugh HR legal departments will can the person who is accused of sex harassment if there is even one good witness. But that is truly the rare exception.


Let the classic bully destroy him or her self

Rather than make a complaint, try and irritate the bully to become more fearful and paranoid. They always make mistakes. In the case of Sue, complaining about that other employee and getting him fired has come back to haunt her. She had him fired because he was testy and abrasive and challenged her. But her management of him was erratic and inconsistent. The more fearful she became because of his challenges, the more irrational she became. He now has a new job but she is stuck and dozens of her peers are joining together to make her life miserable. She has turned from the classic bully to the target of a mob of revenge seekers.


Create a support team to help weather the assault

Get help from the right people. Most psychologists don’t understand bullying and can’t help you. Find a good conflict coach or consultant who can dissect the issues and give you sound tactical solutions. Whining won’t work. Don’t expect your family to help you. They don’t have the experience.


Behave yourself

The man I referred to in the case study for this chapter lost his job in part because he didn’t handle the classic bully. If she said yes, he’d say NO and with good reasons. But some of her requests, while unreasonable, were within her rights as team-lead. He was just fed up with her and felt she was being unreasonable and that she was a royal pain in the butt. And he paid the price by being fired.


Keep working

It’s so tempting to be passive and start taking time off or sabotaging your work product. The research is replete with sabotage as a response to bullying. (If for no other reason that productivity, dealing with bullying should be a top 3 issue for companies.)


Transfer or leave

Having an exit strategy must be one of your options. In order to do that you have to keep your reputation clean and your work product current.


Document with focus on policies violated and costs to company bottom line

It’s really important to keep track of what’s happening. Not just the who, what, when, and where, but the consequences of the bullying behavior. This is a critical issue that most how-to guides ignore. The company cares about consequences—what’s the impact to the bottom line? Where did the manager violate company policy? If you’re going to complain, that’s what you complain about. Just whining about being bullied will not stop the problem. It’s a long course no matter how you complain but please, be political when you do complain.


In this case, my client was one of many targets of classic bullying from Sue. Sue was fearful and competitive, insecure and possibly not competent. She lacked leadership and management skills and saw herself as a victim. She justified her destructive attacks as a response to being victimized. She used her manager and HR to support her actions and was not above making up stories that pushed HR to take actions on her behalf.

Sue targeted my client after my client did not hire her to be on the team. (In actuality my client and I discussed Sue’s interview and I suggested she reconsider hiring her.) Sue had a strong sense of entitlement and demanded, among other things, for my client to give her a promotion based on work she had not yet accomplished. This was a major red flag. My client saw it as youthful behavior, I saw it as the seeds of a serious problem. Turns out I was right.

Sue’s actions toward my client included undermining my client’s authority with her team members. The bully gossiped, lied, and misrepresented her work to the team members. In addition, Sue regularly missed deadlines and tried to blame my client for the miscommunication. Because my client had experienced bullying before, she was hyper-prepared with her documentation and avoided serious career consequences.

My client still has to deal with Sue but Sue has turned her attention to others and is playing victim with everyone. She is beginning to miss deadlines as well as important meetings. Every day someone else turns against her.

Sue is good at manipulating her superiors so she is still in her job but her time is running out. Having that man fired was a serious error on her part and she will probably not win in the end. It may take months for her to pay the price but it’s likely she will be transferred or demoted.

No one will be able to protect her once people start complaining about her productivity instead of her behavior.