Schoolyard vs Workplace Bullying

schoolyardRemember the schoolyard bully? Who could forget the grip of fear when witnessing or suffering the assault of a bully! The bully created terror in our hearts by grabbing control of us. The bully used intimidation, humiliation, verbal threats and physical attacks. The bully had groups of followers who enjoyed the limelight created by the bully’s prowess. Everyone else cowered for fear of becoming the next victim. Cowering made sense since no one from the school administration was going to step up to stop the bully’s reign of terror. Sometimes they thought the target deserved it. Sometimes they too were afraid of the bully. And oftentimes they had no rules to use to stop the bully. Possibly they knew that the bully was suffering his/her own terrors and thus reluctant to take action. As children and as targets it was difficult to empathize with the bully and to understand that the bully was actually weak, terrified, and a target. We were suffering the slings and arrows of the bully and we wanted it to stop. As adults it is difficult to be empathize with the bully boss or colleague even though many bullies suffer the same fears and terrors as their schoolyard counterparts. Again we are suffering the consequences of bully behavior and we want it to stop.

There are specific differences between schoolyard bullying and workplace bullying that must be considered when trying to understand the problems of workplace bullying.

The stakes are higher. Workplace bullying impacts careers not lunch money.

We are unprepared. We operate on shared assumptions about collegiality and community.

We are stupefied. If the presenting organizational culture is one of harmony but bully behavior is allowed to persist, we become confused and blame ourselves for the problem.

We deny the facts. Often targets do not even identify threatening and intimidating behavior as bullying until someone labels it for us.

These obvious differences between workplace and schoolyard bullying create the need for different responses than the ones we used in the schoolyard.

Actions for schoolyard targets:

    • Wait it out until graduation
    • Keep silent and suffer
    • Take on the bully – learn some defense moves and stand and deliver them
    • Tell adults and hope they will take action on your behalf
    • Align with the bully and target someone else for bullying
    • Create your own gang and become a bully
    • Give in – do the bully’s homework, dirty work, whatever


I am not at all unsympathetic to the trials of the schoolyard bully target. I am demonstrating the difference in options between schoolyard and workplace.

Actions for workplace targets:

    • Wait it out – maybe the boss will move on
    • Remain silent and suffer
    • Take on the bully – stand up and invite the boss to ‘take it outside’ as one bully target put it
    • Tell HR and hope they will believe you and take action on your behalf
    • Present your case to HR or management in such a way that they are aligned with your situation and choose to help
    • Learn your company policies so you know your rights and responsibilities
    • Align with the bully and target someone else
    • Create your own gang and isolate the boss
    • Become a bully
    • Give in – quit, move on

So, noted above we have three important options we did not have as children. In addition we have tools of negotiation, step by step planning, the patience to have interim solutions, the wisdom to pick and choose our methods, various analytical models, and a plethora of literature on negotiation.

We have specialized professionals – conflict coaches, mediators, and legal support.

And, we have humor, insight, and plenty of analysts categorizing, studying this problem, and creating new solutions for targets and for employers.

So, based on the growing field of study which analyses bullying, start your quest for handling the bully boss by asking yourself the three questions below.

You’ll find some prompts to help you with your answers. Keep in mind you will have to wade through you anger and damning thoughts to find real answers to these questions. The ‘he is an out-dated S@#’ may be true but it is not going to help you.

What fears might be driving my bully boss?

  1. Incompetence
  2. Performance deadlines
  3. Family challenges
  4. Health concerns
  5. Being an outsider
  6. Weak sense of self
  7. Competition
  8. Failure
  9. OTHER____

What is my bully boss trying to accomplish with bullying?

  1. Improved outcomes
  2. Sadistic pleasure of seeing others suffer
  3. Gain a personal win
  4. Prove who is the boss
  5. Prove he/she knows more
  6. Keep everyone on edge believing it will improve performance (a management style)
  7. OTHER___

What skills is my bully boss lacking?

    1. Leadership
    2. Negotiation
    3. Empathy
    4. Team building
    5. Warmth
    6. Ability to respect others and appreciate differences
    7. Trust
    8. OTHER___

Okay, hopefully this exercise has helped you gain some perspective on your situation and some empathy for yourself and your bully boss. Now ask yourself these questions:

  1. What one thing can I take from these exercises that will help me gain perspective on the situation?
  2. What do I need to know to help me with this bully boss?
  3. What skills do I need to have to help me?
  4. What can I do right now to help myself cope?
  5. Who can I call and talk with to who understands the problem?

Unlike the schoolyard bully situation, workplace bullying is a prison yard sentence without an end date. Only you can negotiate your parole. Either you use a spoon to scratch you way out, find a weakness in the prison security system and run away, demonstrate your goodness for an early release, expose the guards to higher authorities, convince the parole board that you deserve to be released, or redefine your sentence and walk out the gate a free man or woman.

In the end, you are the master of your fate. Take charge now but use care and wisdom as you plan the rest of your life.