Psychology: how to spot the bullies


Most people in management recognise that there are times when it is necessary to pressure people and drive them to perform. But what is the difference between this kind of behaviour – which may seem harsh to the recipient – and actual bullying?

Neutral observers would generally agree that ‘driving behaviour’ is often motivated by positive considerations, such as the need to deliver. Bullying behaviour, on the other hand, often seems gratuitous, with no obvious motivation other than to cause pain and humiliation and satisfy something in the mind of the bully.

Bullying behaviour

Based on scientific research and professional experience, the following are classic signs of bullying behaviour, as opposed to driving behaviour:

– Uncontrolled anger and unpredictable irritability, frequently directed at the weakest people (‘safe targets’) or those perceived as a future threat

– A sociopathic ability to control their own image – the selective ability to look like a different person to different audiences – for example, being aggressive to ‘subordinates’, while being charming and helpful to others

– Having little status outside of work, bullies wield the power that their job gives them with vicious zeal

– Running ‘witch-hunts’

– Gratuitous domineering behaviour – sometimes physical

– The ability to make the unreasonable seem reasonable, even to the victim

– Projecting their own inadequacies onto others

– Making irrational accusations

– Publicly putting people down

– Sadistic enjoyment in humiliating others

Many bullies do not see themselves as such. So what is going on in their minds, and how can organisations successfully manage this seemingly growing phenomenon?

Bullying mentality

Research and experience suggests that the following are common features of the bullying mentality:

– Underlying feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and a fear of ‘being found out’

– Fear that their status is based on their position, rather than their own qualities

– Being in the wrong job (fearing that they are ‘not up to it’)

– Authoritarian personality characteristics

– Excessive use of defence mechanisms, such as projection, rationalisation, displacement and denial

– An inability to accept or engage with their own shortcomings

– Trying to ‘right wrongs’ – taking revenge on innocent people for perceived wrongs done to them

– Boosting their own ego by undermining other people

– Feeling a need to crush people whom they perceive as a threat to their precarious status

Organisations have changed beyond recognition over the past few decades. Some of these changes can actually contribute to bullying.

For example, flatter structures have led to the loss of the ‘safety’ provided by traditional hierarchies, which has created a need in some to establish their supremacy by other means.

Outsourcing has caused pressure to perform, and a lack of clarity about reporting lines. Career paths are now less structured, so there can be more pressure on people to jockey for position. And virtual teams create ambiguity, which makes it easier for people to get away with bullying.

What’s the solution?

A recommended approach to getting the best from people and combating bullying is based on the following principles:

– Create a culture that supports people, in which bullying is neither rewarded not tolerated

– Drive an understanding across the organisation that bullying leads to poor performance

– Sift out potential bullies during the recruitment process (by looking for the characteristics outlined above)

– Reward managers for clear examples of empathy and inclusion

– Coach for inclusiveness

– Create open channels of communication across all levels

– Encourage the most senior people to be genuinely sympathetic

– Never mollify bullies.

Dr Sue Henley and Ed Hurst are directors at Saville Consulting UK

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