Workplace Bullying: 6 Ways Power Influences Outcomes

Workplace Bullying: 6 Ways Power Influences Outcomes

Those of you who follow my blogs know that I am not militant about workplace bulllying issues. I think that most bullying is actually abrasive behaviors. Most so-called bullies are really unaware of how their behavior is perceived by others and are interested and willing to change with proper help.

But there are some types of aggressive behavior that really stem from the Classic Bullying behavior of deliberately targeting someone for harm with the hope that they will suffer and maybe even disappear. It comes from contempt for someone and once that person is gone, another will take his or her place. The bully is really entrenched with using his or her power to hurt others. Why? Hard to know all the reasons, but certainly fear, contempt, and discriminatory attitudes are among them. Sometimes there’s a personality disorder at play as well, but not always.

The Role of Power

Gary Namie wrote an interesting piece on the role of power in the workplace and how administrators ignore the role of power when they provide solutions.  Here are six sources of institutional power that people who behave like bullies in the workplace can use to their advantage.

Mediation – Not a Level Playing Field

The common solution of mediation assumes that the target and the perpetrator are of equal power and authority and implies that the bullying behavior is merely a misunderstanding that can be mediated and resolved. In fact, the aggressor is likely to be a boss and therefore of more value and importance to the organization. Mediation gives the boss the opportunity to continue to intimidate the target while seeming to be interested in an amicable solution.

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 the facts. Namie argues that there are no defensible arguments for workplace bullying. He states: “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.”

Witness Intimidation

We all know the problem with having witnesses support claims of bullying. Witnesses are in the no-win situation of aligning with the victim and therefore risking their own safety or remaining silent and thereby supporting the aggressor. If HR relies on witnesses, their conclusions will naturally fall with the accused.

Disgruntled Employee Assumptions

All too often administrators dismiss complaints of bullying by seeking evidence that the employee is disgruntled. We all have examples of misuse of policies but in the case of bullying complaints, the consequences of complaining are so great that it’s hardly worth the trouble of complaining.

These are four ways Gary highlights in his piece on how people in the workplace do not understand the power of bullying. Other ways people who behave like bullies have power include:

Bottom Line Authority

Those people who deliver on the bottom line (even if they aren’t quite truthful) have more power and authority than a target. Companies are biased toward those who can show they are of value to the organization. Anyone who complains but lacks this leverage is going to be at a keen disadvantage.


People who gang up against one person will be able to stick together and gossip, isolate and harm the target and then use their collective power to make it seem that the target is really the problem. It’s easy for an administrator to conclude that the group must be right and the target must be the problem because everyone in the group will have the same story and justifications regardless of the truth.

An Imbalance of Power

As Namie states: “…workplace bullying (is) a phenomenon characterized by an imbalance of real, effective power at work, leaving one person much less powerful than the other.”

Whether that power comes from ignorance, economics or strategic actions is irrelevant. Power differential exist and interfere with our ability to see what is really happening and therefore to create solutions that will stop the bullying.

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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.


  • Katx

    Excellent article, as a person involved in a case of bullying I find some of the steps used by the organization I work for in dealing with top down bullying to be extremely protective of the higher ranking employee/manager, HR and senior managers of equal status tend to protect the bully as one of their own instead of taking a neutral stance. At times it appears that there is a bullying culture that actually comes or is shared by the more senior staff designed to protect the ‘establishment’ as a negative outcome would ‘taint’ all the management structure.