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The Bully Pulpit, Part III: A Bevy of Bullies

Have you ever been bullied at work? You might be surprised at the wide variety of bullying styles, from raging and being overt about their use of power to demure and definitely under the radar. Here’s how to tell the difference between a bully and a boss who just happens to be stern, demanding, or downbeat, as well as descriptions of several common bully types.

The Impact of a Bully

A Bullying Boss typically tries to control employees’ activities, work environment, and responses. The Bullying Boss can be a micromanager, specifying and forcing every detail of how the work gets done, or could appear as just the opposite, giving inadequate or inaccurate direction and then deriding employees for not doing things the right way. The Bullying Boss also often controls which people their subordinates are allowed to interact with or get help from, including colleagues, other executives, and even support workers who could provide information or resources that would make the Bullying Boss’s subordinates more successful than s/he wants them to be.

The Bullying Boss’s behavior may appear erratic or random (employees tend to check with each other about the daily mood) because inconsistent behavior is very effective at keeping people off-balance.

The Bullying Boss is negative, even to the point of attacking subordinates in a personal way, not just about the work product or outcome, but about such things as appearance, lifestyle, aspirations, etc. Employees who are subject to the bully, even if otherwise psychologically healthy, often become increasingly fearful, frustrated, and pessimistic. Over time, they can become disengaged and take less initiative, and often the quality and quantity of their output diminishes to the level necessary for compliance.

High Demand, High Reward

A Demanding Boss, on the other hand, is consistent, albeit consistently hard to satisfy. Employees may not like Demanding Bosses, but at least they can anticipate what their requirements and reactions are likely to be. The Demanding Boss may be highly critical of the work-product and employee behaviors, but rarely of the employee as a person.

The Demanding Boss tends to have a lot of rules about how to work with other departments or obtain resources, but wants these rules followed in order to create the best possible outcome for the customer, work group, or work product. Demanding Bosses typically support teamwork and consultation because they want to see effective results.

Most employees who work for a Demanding Boss know what is expected of them. They may feel nervous about their performance, and if they’re conscientious, will also feel disappointed in themselves if they do not perform up to the Demanding Boss’s standards. “Good” performers clearly know what is expected and go about their jobs with dedication and alacrity.

Look Out for These Bullies

Some specific Bullying Types include:

  • The Belittling Bully (AKA, the Patronizing Bully) treats victims like they’re stupid, often engaging in verbal insults as well as disdainful gestures or facial expressions (eye-rolling and shrugging). Belittling Bullies often appear to wish not to breathe the same air as the victim, and can make victims doubt themselves, their self-worth, and their efficacy.
  • The Not for Attribution (or Backstabbing) Bully tells other people (including authorities, people of organizational status, and others with no need to know) stories about the victim that portray the victim as a problem — often as an instigator, troublemaker, or actual aggressor in the situation — all the while asking the audience for silence and no action.
  • The Tantrum-Throwing Bully enforces compliance through direct intimidation, yelling, threats, abusive or degrading language or behavior, cursing, and labeling.
  • The Tearful Bully is remarkably like the Tantrum-Throwing Bully, but appeals to sympathy, appears overcome by emotion, and cries as a distraction or to make victims feel uncomfortable — often while appearing to be “wronged” by the victim. The Tearful Bully’s victims often feel particularly guilty instead of angry if they don’t “give in” and comply with requests.
  • The Pretend-Friend Bully appears to establish ownership of victims and/or community with them, as if these particular victims are special and set apart from other people the bully treats badly (since they deserve it), and have protection or immunity from persecution because they’re friends. (Of course the friendship doesn’t last.)
  • The Stonewalling (or Avoidant) Bully won’t provide answers or give direction, stalls by asking for more and more information, doesn’t respond to meeting requests, budget requests, or emails — and then blames subordinates for lack of results.

Have you been subject to any of these types of bullies? Are there other types you’ve experienced? Email if you’d like to share them — no names, please!

Onward and upward,


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