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By Robert Mueller, JD

From a business perspective, “bullies” are not the well-intentioned supervisors who have perhaps “gone a little too far.” All of us dedicated to doing a good job are vulnerable to that fault. The difference with the bullies is not one of degree. And, it’s not about being abusive or subtle. It is a difference of type. Theirs is a fundamental defect, not a passing aberration. Typical supervisors have a capacity to “connect” with others, to learn lessons from them and their experiences. These are the innovators and leaders. The bullies are not. They are imposters. For them, it’s all about themselves and not about the work.

Sometimes dedicated managers are concerned about being unfairly characterized “a bully” when they need not be. Moral, psychological, and legal definitions create that threat but not a business one. These other notions are useless when work is ongoing and there is no time for pondering. The better model is cast in immediate, operational terms. Allegedly anti-social behaviors are measured against adherence to, or deviation from the employer’s mission and its practical applications. Whenever bullying is verified, so is its counter-productivity.

In accord with academic and legislative findings from around the world, when a manager researches “bullying” as a phenomenon then measures it against their daily priorities, they find bullying is unacceptable in their operations. It is a mostly hidden, terribly expensive but avoidable cost. The bully’s purposeful acts artificially inflate heath care, litigation and worker’s compensation. Managers have taken on these high cost items from every angle but generally not this one. It’s time to lean into this problem, rather than look the other way.

There exists a myth that the bullies are better at getting results than other, perhaps less engaged, supervisors. Bullies are the ultimate defenders of mediocrity, starting with their own. To their painful frustration, employees of intelligence, talent, and accomplishment keep popping up around them and repeatedly have to be slapped down. Particularly threatening are employees with leadership potential. That is something akin to a “sin” to a bully way of thinking. These wrongly maligned employees are also the ones with positive options to leave, sometimes to the competition. Managers work hard to attract, retain, and develop exactly the same individuals that bullies, working at cross-purposes, strive to squash.

Under the bully’s abusive thumb, employees reasonably retreat from employment processes through absenteeism, withholding efforts they would otherwise make, general insubordination, and sometimes, sabotage. When other supervisors faced with a problem would stop, look and listen, the bullies lack both the interest and ability. They abuse as a dangerous substitute. In contrast to attentive supervisors, bullies can never join with others and can never grow.

Actual bullies can generally make an excellent showing of enthusiasm, mimicking their employer’s mission but they have no intention of furthering it. They are on their own mission: the conquest of specific others for personal satisfaction, using their institutionally conferred authority as a convenient platform. Bullies are relentlessly not personal people and quite proud of it. They are profoundly off-point, not team players and certainly not leadership material. They are about power, conquest, and control -- not about production or personal relations. They deem themselves to be on a “higher calling” that just happens to put themselves “in control” over everyone, if and when their special notion of correctness prevails.


To a manager’s eye, the bully might at first appear to be a particularly charming colleague but in fact he is a renegade. It is the bully’s practice “to cut management out-of-the-loop” whenever and wherever possible thus pulling down the bottom line. The first evidence is likely to come up in personnel matters because these tend to be contentious. But there is always more to it. If a bully has hijacked the employer’s authority in personnel matters, the likelihood is that she has also appropriated other portions of operations.

To understand what’s going on, managers need to factor out altogether the bully’s currently targeted employee. It is not in the least about him. He is so utterly irrelevant to the abuse syndrome that when he removes himself from the workplace by quitting, taking his supposedly emotional difficulties with him, the bullying continues serially with each newly targeted employee.

But bullies are not invisible. In addition to protecting operational goals, managers can protect themselves personally and professionally by taking seriously all complaints, including comments made in passing. Informally quizzing the supervisor may be the natural starting point, but with the true bullies, this approach is generally not helpful. It merely teaches them to contrive and con better and thus compromise operations longer.

It is also unhelpful to look at any singular incident by itself and out of context. Unless the alleged bully is confronted with specific evidence demonstrating a pattern and practice of abuse over time, the bully will predictably wiggle away from responsibility for the latest incident. His declared pretext will be just credible enough, when heard alone, to pass muster.

Instead, the truth will most likely be found by looking into the context. Are there other incidents that the current target of alleged maltreatment can describe? What do other employees have to say, particularly those who left to work elsewhere? Taking any of these to lunch is sometimes all it takes. What does the controller have to report about how he handles the employer’s resources beside its human ones? Not coincidently, bullies have been known to charm the controller before anyone else.

Everyone is well advised to keep a watchful eye on people who are (maybe oddly) charming yet lacking in sincerity. Also of concern is anyone who habitually casts disparagements of any kind. It is advisable to bring in an outsider’s objective perspective whether that is someone particularly well versed in that business, or experienced with bullying behaviors.

Robert Mueller JD is a former labor lawyer and the author of “Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide. “Mueller now coaches employees and consults with employers. BullyingBosses.com.


Copyright © 2007 Bullying Bosses: A Survivor’s Guide