Sometimes, leaders can be unaware of the types of bullying and that their actions may be misinterpreted.
Recently, 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.
Since I am not an authority on workplace bullying, I reached out to experts 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.
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 rumors
- 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.
Interruptions and “Machine Gun Rants”:
Often, when I outranked people in a group or private meeting, 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.
It is difficult for an employee to point this out, but it can also 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.
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 my rank protected me.
I would justify this behavior as just being “funny” or trying to lighten up the conversation, but now I know better.
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 into 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 were 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 impatient 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 cyberbullied?
- Do you think those who bully at work are bad people?
Were You Aware of the 4 Types of Bullying?
If you have ideas about the types of bullying that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!
Would you like to contribute a post?
Great article Al as always. I agree with everything you have stated. My only concern with the whole bullying concept is that we mistake a heated discussion or a passionate belief for bullying. I have seen where some individuals consider anyone who heatedly disagrees with them as a bully. How do you deal with that?
“Was I a bad, mean person?”
Yes, Al, you were a bad, mean person.
Just because you led successful teams doesn’t absolve you of the wrongs you did to the people you led.
If you really want closure, admit you were “bad” and “mean’ and ask former employees for forgiveness
@ Greg, thanks for you comment. You are correct, I was indeed bad and mean. I did apologize to the staff members and gave them my word I would change. That is when I started applying many of the organizational development tools I write about and coach others on.
My point is that there was enough good in me to realize what I was doing and took definite action to change.
@ Tim, thanks for your good question. This is why it is so important to define bullying. We have to have enough trust in our teams to be sincere and disagree with one another, this is critical to partnering and succeeding. The point when heated arguments escalate into bullying is when name calling, intimidation and other behaviors listed in the definition develop
Al, what a poignant and needed article. It is not easy to admit what you did. It takes a strong leader to admit he or she was wrong.
Your article needs to be read by every manager on the planet – especially managers in power culture organizations.
@Mark, thanks so much. I’m honored by your kind words my friend.
Really interesting and thought provoking article. Thank you for bringing this to life throughj sharing your behaviours – This is a brave and intergrous thing to do. I too have been guilty of bullying as a child and as an adult and am still embarrswerew
All points hit home, especially the last about being a ‘bad, mean person’ which creates an interesting realisation for me. I was also guilty of bullying as a child and as a manager something that both frustrates and embarasses me to this day. Why embarras? Because that is not the person I am or want to be. In fact this behaviour goes against my very core values of fairness, decency and non judgement or critisicm. Why frustrates? Because I did it. But I feel there in lies the secret – At the time my values weren’t clear and defined, I was not self aware and I was definitely not emotionaly intelligent. Was I bad and mean? Absolutely(I have apologised)!! Was I a bad and mean person? Absolutely not!! This too is why I am a coach and facilitor with a mission to create awareness and responsibility for individuals so that they don’t make the same mistakes I make/made. This is also why I feel (very strongly) that EI development is essential early and continuously
Thank you for awakening these realisations and sparking new thoughts
@Stephan ~ thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience, I am humbled. Your comment captures the true spirit of what I was writing about when I said that I didn’t consider myself a bad person. There is a big difference between someone who needs to look in the mirror and align his actions to the values he wants to live by and someone who deliberately sets out to manipulate, intimidate and hurt others.
Glad to learn that you are also coaching and facilitators. I am sure that your empathy helps you reach those who you are working with!
All the best!!!
Thanks for your great article.
I wish I knew a way of ensuring a few managers I’ve been associated with could read this.