Home About Robert Definitions Incident Report Psychology The Press Tips & Strategies Women

By Robert Mueller, JD

Author of “Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide.”

If you are reading this voluntarily and sincerely, you can relax. You’re not a Bully. If you’re someone who’s prone to workplace conflict upon occasion, you may need help with stress management, substance abuse, or sensitivity training. But that does not mean you seek to control others as a personal compulsion. That’s what Bullies do. Leaders are just the opposite. They “connect” with their charges rather than seek their “conquest.” Probably unconsciously, they are acutely aware of this difference between themselves and the Bullies in their midst. The truth is, Bullies are dangerous to them. They are to everyone in the workplace.

Moralists, legal people, and psychologists view the workplace from the outside. They apply the only standards they know—the ones Miss Manners encourages. They might tell a supervisor to keep his voice down when a good, strong order is exactly what’s required on a construction site on a hot afternoon. In an office, they would applaud the supervisor who speaks in soft tones complete with a great many “please’s” and “thank you’s.” They might not notice that this seemingly polite supervisor is micromanaging her target to death, humiliating him to compromise his dignity, to bring him under her personal control. Standards based on etiquette are not applicable in every circumstance. The true standards of bullying are those that measure the Bully’s impact on employee performance.

It’s not productive to judge an alleged Bully’s guilt or innocence from any particular behavior. That would render merely bad, tough, and rough bosses indistinguishable from the Bullies. The difference between these bosses and a Bully Boss is that bullying is defined as a pattern of behavior, and that behavior is not one of degree but of a particular type. There are no gradations. Without this distinction, it’s impossible know if a leader needs coaching or requires stronger remedial action. A boss may recall last April 15 when he snapped at his secretary. Did he bully her? Without a definition to guide us, every thoughtful person is left wondering if his or her behavior crossed a line. Even in the absence of institutional policies, no one wants be thought of as a “Bully,” not when leadership within a team structure is the legitimate and preferred approach.


Not surprisingly, workplace bullying is a syndrome of abusive behavior that has a great deal in common with domestic violence. The vast majority of employees targeted by Bully Bosses are women, but Bully Bosses themselves are in equal parts male and female. Bully Bosses engage in a series and pattern of inappropriate and abusive acts that are designed to isolate and humiliate their target. Their behavior is not personal in the sense that if the targeted employee leaves, the Bully Boss will simply find a new target. Bully Bosses are perpetually toxic to the entire workplace because they don’t stop bullying when their targets quit or get fired.

Bully Bosses seek to isolate their targets. They do this any number of ways—by ignoring, excluding, humiliating, compromising confidences, campaigning against, spreading rumors about, demonizing, scapegoating, and so on. Bully Bosses harass targets using official acts—negative performance reports, disciplining, changing assignments, displacing or removing, and selective rule enforcement, to name a few. And they have a pattern of “twisting acts” that weaken the employee. These include micromanaging, withholding critical information, toying with raises or bonuses, toying with vacation requests, testing loyalties, and making unrealistic work demands.

If a certain superior raised her voice on Thursday, should she be pathologized as a Bully? She may have been wrong to raise her voice in frustration or anger, but if she has the capacity to connect with others earnestly, to learn lessons and grow, then she is not a Bully.

In the US, some corporations have attempted to prohibit bullying as an extension of their disciplinary procedures. Their successes have been upheld in the courts. But they don’t really say what the rules are. Well-intentioned HR professionals typically define “bullying” with a long tautology, “verbally or physically harassing, coercing, intimidating, or threatening a coworker, supervisor, or customer.”

A business definition is called for. It must be framed in terms that fit into the jobs management does, rather than fit into the job HR does. To be practical, it must further operational needs, rather than interfere with them. It must provide criteria every bit as clear as that found in a manual. When efforts are ongoing, they can’t shut down for debate or a therapy session. As with any other difficulty, the definition has to be results-oriented.
Deviates from the employer’s designated mission and its practical applications,
Seemingly to pursue his/her own mission for power or control (a campaign, repeated events),
Over a subordinate employee
With behaviors understood to be anti-social, including all harassing behaviors regardless of motivation.

This model addresses quantifiable behaviors and not motivations, malice, or harm. It leaves room for reasonable implementation but, ultimately, a Bully is a renegade.  He or she compromises human resources through anti-social behaviors, adds zero value to the undertaking, and causes the employer calculable and considerable costs.

This is a practical approach that examines the alleged Bully’s misuse of not only human resources but employer resources in general. This definition enables us to look beyond a perhaps odd event for patterns over time. It offers language that can be useful to managers when faced with a bullying circumstance. Isolated events of abuse can be baffling when narrowly observed as an independent, interpersonal incident. Leaders focus on the job. That’s what they are there for. Their leader role necessarily includes nurturing and protecting the strength of the individuals who make the work happen. It does not include stalking.

Our definition of a Bully Boss enables us to address the matter in familiar terms as an occupational health and safety issue. It points to the creation of policies and cultures with zero tolerance for both physical and psychological violence. It is never businesslike or legitimate for anyone to use the largeness of institutional authority to bully, harm, or hound a politically weaker subordinate employee. If there are genuine problems with an employee—and there frequently are—there exist legitimate procedures that, unlike independent bullying, include consideration of the employer’s interests.


Using this scientific approach encourages leaders to look at bullying in an objective way. Sometimes that includes looking at a matter from other directions. Just as a supervisor might look to his manager to measure his own success as a producer, he could look to his subordinates to measure his own success as a leader. Do they seem clear, or confused? Are their eyes bright, or glazed over? Are they listening, or deflecting? Management is always the responsible party. The behavior of employees is a reflection of how managers exercise their responsibility.

To know what a Bully is, is to know you are not one. Leaders are focused on the job and not on personalities—not theirs or any other. They learn their subordinates’ requirements with precision, aimed toward solutions. They are successful because they “connect” to them and their own bosses as well. A leader’s employees are not sullen but are instead engaged, even enthusiastic. The leader and they have direction. Together they share competencies. Leaders don’t jump to conclusions, because they are already paying close attention. They know they can’t be Bullies, because they know they are leaders.


Copyright © 2007 Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide