Sometimes, leaders can be unaware of the ways that their actions may be misinterpreted.One time, a friend told me that her boss had been bullying her.

Although it was obvious that her manager’s behavior involved tactics that were aggressive, humiliating, and intimidating, my friend was unable to take a stand against this onslaught, as she found it hard to prove that her manager was operating against established rules and policies.

Essentially, it was her word against her manager’s.

This was quite scary, as she felt that her job could be in jeopardy.

Painful Memories

Since I am not an authority on workplace bullying, I reached out to experts via a discussion post on LinkedIn and started looking for resources that could help her.

Little did I know that through the course of this experience, I was going to come face to face with my own bullying behavior and the reason that I became a leadership consultant.

While the whole story can be accessed here, it is fair to say that I ended up looking in the mirror and becoming embarrassed about my own actions, both as a child AND as a manager.

While it would be easier to merely focus on what my friend’s manager was doing, I decided to focus instead on the ways that I bullied others as a leader. As you will see, it was very easy for me to justify my actions at the time.

I wanted to dig deep and list some of the actions I am least proud of, in hopes of helping others who may be doing the same thing to their direct reports.

Four Types of Bullying

The National Center Against Bullying lists four types of bullying. Although the organization’s focus is on childhood bullying, the following kinds of bullying can also occur at the workplace:

  • Physical bullying – hitting, kicking, tripping, pinching and pushing or damaging property.
  • Verbal bullying – name calling, insults, teasing, intimidation, homophobic or racist remarks, or verbal abuse.
  • Covert bullying – often harder to recognize, covert bullying includes:
    • lying and spreading rumours
    • negative facial or physical gestures, menacing or contemptuous looks
    • playing nasty jokes to embarrass and humiliate
    • mimicking unkindly
    • encouraging others to exclude someone
    • damaging someone’s reputation or acceptance
  • Cyberbullying ~ overt or covert bullying behaviors using digital technologies.

As a kid, I was never guilty of physical bullying and cyberbullying did not exist. However, I am ashamed to admit that I repeatedly verbally bullied another student.

I am also ashamed to say that, as a leader, I became good at verbal and covert bullying, which I was responsible for myself and learned from other managers.

Verbal Bullying

Interruptions and “Machine Gun Rants”:

Often, when I outranked people in group or private meetings, I would interrupt others and engage in what I call “machine gun rants”, where I would talk over the other person with a string of statements, usually with an escalating tone.

This is a very popular tactic with many leaders and is part of the organizational culture in most places where I have worked .

Not only is it difficult for an employee to point this out, it can be scary when many high-ranking supervisors or executives exhibit these same bullying traits. These interruptions and “machine gun rants” can be part of an organization’s culture, right to the very top.

For example, I used to work for a boss who respected those who would engage in heated discussions with him. Anyone who would shy away from these “discussions”, no matter how talented, was thought of as weak.

This stance made it difficult for employees who did not fit this personality type to remain engaged in the workplace, as verbal bullies were promoted in that organization.

Any direct reports wanting to raise this issue with their boss or HR would also be pointing out, by default, that these bullying tactics also applied to the big bosses in the organization! Who wants to do that?

I suspect that for this and other reasons, I got away with interruptions and my “machine gun rants”, though I know very well that I humiliated and intimidated my staff members.

Covert Bullying

One on One Meetings:

As a manager, I was guilty of covert bullying during one-on-one sessions with my staff. Negative facial and physical gestures, contemptuous looks, and mimicking were all tactics that I used during private conversations with my staff, and I felt that I was protected by my rank.

I would justify this behavior as just being “funny” or trying to lighten up the conversation, but now I know better.

Large Meetings:

One of the covert bullying actions I am most embarrassed about was excluding some of my staff members from meetings where I knew that their expertise would be helpful.

Instead, I would go to the meetings and insert myself in the middle of tasks that could have been performed quicker without me.

I would justify these actions as being “mindful” of my staff’s time. I claimed that it was MY job to specifically determine what my staff members could do and to ensure that they were not wasting their time in long meetings. After all, I was their boss.

The truth is, it would have been more efficient to have the staff members attend the meetings and then report back to me.

In essence, I was selfishly excluding my staff from meetings to ensure that my presence and contribution was evident.

Are All Bullies Bad People?

Was I a bad, mean person?  I really don’t think so. However, I did bully others. I know that for certain.

I have also felt bullied many times by supervisors who I do not believe bad people.

However, under stress and pressure, it is easy for them to become inpatient and use terse, aggressive language. Does this make them bad?

I don’t think so. But it does mean that they should reconsider their management style to be more aware of these less obvious forms of bullying.

According to Boyle and Gibson, about 80 percent of bullies are supervisors.

While I am sure there are insecure and mean bosses that crave power due to their insecurities, chances are that many good supervisors are bullying without even knowing it.

  • Have you experienced or witnessed bullying at work
  • Have you been bullied yourself?
  • If so, have you been verbally, physically or cyber bullied?
  • Do you think those who bully at work are bad people?

How Do You Handle a Bully at Work?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Al Gonzalez
Al has worked for 16 years helping others maximize the quality of their leadership at Motorola, CBS Sports, and Cornell University. He’s used these experiences to develop trust-based leadership tools for all levels of management.