The Keys to Coping With Bully Behavior in the Workplace


The phrase workplace bully holds many meanings and comes in many forms.

Just about every office has one – that person who makes life around the office challenging, toxic, or even downright frustrating. Sometimes it’s not even on purpose.

Workplace bullies are distracting. They derail performance and can impact the organization’s ability to deliver on its mission. Sure, sometimes their “bully nature” may be known to drive work to completion. They may even be very effective at their job.

But alienating people and making enemies is never a good long-term solution for success. Workplace bullies can cost your organization time, money, and productivity.

So are you the workplace bully. or are you working with or for a bully? Here are the three (3) biggest workplace bullying behaviors I’ve seen:

1. The 90/10 bully

I call them the 90/10 bully because these bullies are never happy. Nothing is ever good enough. You can do nine things right yet one thing wrong, even slightly wrong, and these bullies will only focus on that one thing wrong — to hell with the nine things right.

They rarely, if ever, give positive feedback and encouragement, but they sure do love to nitpick about the negative. Good managers and leaders address the good and the bad, the positive and the negative. They encourage, coach, teach; they don’t just nitpick for flaws. I mean, really —  who wants to work for a “Debbie Downer” anyway!

2. The blame game bully

The blame game bully never takes any responsibility. They’re usually blaming everyone but themselves.

Often accountability is a foreign concept to these folks. It’s easier to point out what someone else did wrong than own up to the fact they may have played a part in the outcome or output they find unsatisfactory.

I’ve found this is the most prominent bully in the workplace, and probably because people don’t like to have the finger pointed at them – so they point it at someone else first.

The fact of the matter is, if you’re responsible for leading a team of people or even for creating deliverables as part of a team, their mistakes are your mistakes, regardless of finger-pointing. You want to be successful and help others to learn and succeed, so don’t try and throw them under the bus.

3. The argumentative bully

Do I really need to explain this one?

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You know who I am talking about. No matter what you say, they’ll say the opposite. This is one of the most destructive of the bullying behaviors because it inhibits productivity upwards to 100 percent.

For every minute spent with an argumentative bully it’s costing you at least five minutes of productivity. And after the disagreement has ended, one must cool down to relax and refocus prior to getting back to work. That’s not conducive to high performance!

Why you shouldn’t tolerate a bully

Here’s a bit of advice on why it’s not cool to be a bully leader, or, why you shouldn’t tolerate a workplace bully:

  • People will never respect you. People may do what you want if you bully them, they may be intimidated by you, though they will most likely will not respect you. Without mutual respect, you usually can’t have an honest and trusting relationship – the type that is really productive both personally and professionally.
  • Bullied people are usually not happy people. Unhappy people are usually not engaged people. Lower employee morale and lower employee engagement contribute to lower customer satisfaction and lower customer satisfaction contributes to decline in profits.
  • Reputation is important for a quality leader. If you have a reputation for being a hard-nosed, detail orientated, assertive go-getter who still listens to others ideas and values and recognizes a job well done, that’s not necessarily a bad reputation – go you for being a role model! Actually, some people thrive under that type of leadership. However, if you have a reputation for being a self-serving, obnoxious, intolerant, tyrannical leader then most likely your bad reputation will precede you. If you have a bad reputation, good luck attracting the best and brightest talent to want to follow you and help you succeed.

How to deal with bullying behavior

Guilty of being a bully? Stuck working with one (or two, or … ? ) Don’t fret. Here are three ways to improve your behaviors and interactions to prevent lost productivity.

  1. Breathe – Yes, I know we all do that anyway, but I mean really breathe. Just stop and take a few of those yoga style deep breaths.
  2. Communicate — I know you’re probably thinking, “well of course I communicate.” Yes, we all do, both verbally and non-verbally. We also all have distinctive communication styles and preferences. In short, if you feel your button is getting pushed as someone is communicating with you, tell them.
  3. Give (and take) feedbackGiving and receiving feedback is imperative to making sure your hot buttons don’t get pushed, and is imperative to helping to not push others. It’s a cycle, and per those who think bullying others is cool, well, they won’t think it’s so cool when it’s the ones they’re bullying who they end up reporting to in the workplace!

Improving your style – and productivity

Want to reach some more about how to deal with your buttons getting pushed? Check out our blog, Are Your Buttons Getting Pushed? 3 Tips On What You Can Do.

Even if you aren’t a workplace bully you’re bound to encounter one. These are three key ways to improve your style, make your work life a bit better, and help to improve how responsive, productive, and profitable your organization can become.

This was originally published on the Tolero Think Tank blog.

Scott Span, MSOD, is CEO & Lead Consultant of Tolero Solutions, an Organization Improvement & Strategy firm. He helps clients in achieving success through people, creating organizations that are more responsive, productive and profitable -- organizations where people enjoy working and customers enjoy doing business. 


5 Comments on “The Keys to Coping With Bully Behavior in the Workplace

  1. I do not think you really understand what a workplace bully is. If you consider how beneficial a mentor is to development and morale, consider the opposite. Bully’s are not accidentally behaving badly. They are trying to bring their targets down and deny them opportunities. They are actively NEGATIVE. They abuse power. Most people leave the organization if they can. Those who do chose to challenge the disrespectful, unprofessional and dishonest behavior need to beware. HR will generally support the hierarchy and NOT company policy. Most bullies have formal hierarchal power in the organization. Bullies are a derivative of poor leadership that allows behaviors that detract from the organizations productivity and success.

  2. Mentoring is an active and focused activity, and so is bullying. If targets are part of a designated class the behavior is explicitly illegal. But, bad behavior focused on an average Joe/Jill is not illegal. Bullying causes stress and makes the workplace less healthy. It is destructive and impedes productivity and morale. Bullying IS illegal in many countries, and there is legislation drafted in the USA, THE HEALTHY WORKPLACE BILL. However, it has not passed. The point is that in these economic times workplaces are rife with abusive managers who have the power to essential rob people of opportunity. It is a big problem affecting everyone. It is not simply a personality conflict. It is pointed and unreasonable actions directed on an individual or group over a course of time that causes health and career damage.

  3. Although a big risk, you can also muster the courage to address it. Bully’s are usually people who have power. That does not mean they are necessarily powerful. There are other people and departments in the organization that may posses more power than the bully and are also powerful. If you know who they are and can trust them, go to them and get their help. You might be surprised how quickly they can shut the workplace bully down!

    1. If there is top leadership support, yes. But, most evidence suggests that people generally leave or are forced out if they challenge bullies. This is substantiated by a number of sources; articles, books, websites. If it were logical and easy there would be no need for all the books, websites, and legislation (pending) that is going on. Point is that this is a big workplace problem these days.

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