Five reasons people bully their colleagues - and how to fight back

Chartered psychologist, coach and author Aryanne Oade looks at what drives someone to bully a colleague, and offers resources to help you stand up to those who try it

by Psychologies

Whatever their methods, each bully has the same aim when they commence a campaign of workplace bullying: to remove power from the colleague they are targeting and retain that control for themselves. 

Bullies do this by trying to limit the behavioural choices open to the target at the time of an attack. The bully wants the target to feel so anxious that they don’t fight back, leaving the bully fully in charge of the interaction between them. 

If a bully can successfully do that, they are well on the way to introducing a bullying dynamic into the relationship whereby they use coercive behaviour to keep themselves in control, while the target’s anxiety keeps them on the back foot.   

Here are five key contexts for the decision to bully:

  1. The bully starts to fear that they are failing at their job.  There is no actual evidence to back up this fear, but their terror of failure and the humiliation, which will result, clouds their judgement. The bully targets a successful and popular colleague in a misguided attempt to take the spotlight off their own shortcomings and place it elsewhere. 
  2. The bully employs a robust workstyle and has a strong preference for working with people who favour similar values. They feel contempt for any colleague who doesn’t present themselves as able, active and confident. The bully targets an under-stated but effective colleague in order to punish them for being ‘weak’, and to bolster their own flagging self-esteem through a false sense of ‘power’.
  3. The bully becomes jealous of the successes of a colleague. Rather than work hard to learn the skills which would make their own success inevitable, the bully’s jealousy results in them targeting this colleague in an attempt to undermine their performance and prevent them from enjoying the rewards of her success.
  4. The bully fears that their role may be under threat from a talented colleague, even though that colleague is neither competitive nor ambitious. Rather than confront their own irrational fears, and apply themselves more diligently to their work, the bully decides to target this colleague to eliminate the opposition.
  5. The bully is envious of the work of a colleague, but rather than learn the skills which will enable them to produce similarly excellent work, the bully targets their colleague, causing them to doubt their own competence and, eventually, under-perform. The way is now open for the bully to ‘rescue’ the target’s work and take over their role.  

However, the good news that every target needs to hear is that a clean and clear expression of choice by the target at the time of an attack will alter the bullying dynamic in their favour.

Even if their options are limited, targets have some choices open to them in the moment of an attack. It’s what the target says and does in the moment of being bullied that interrupts or maintains the bullying dynamic, and that is where their true power lies.

A clean, clear expression of choice results in the bully relinquishing some degree of control and going onto the back foot so that the balance of power between the target and the bully alters in the favour of the target, sometimes sufficiently, sometimes decisively.

Learning how to use the influence available to them under pressure is a key goal for people vulnerable to workplace bullying. Learn how by:

Photograph: iStock