Most offices have a bully: a person who is pushy and manipulative, and happy to terrorize and harass employees. These people are often quite dominant and socially skilled, and their main purpose is to bring others down in order to gain more status. It has been estimated that 20% of employees experience bullying on a regular basis, and this is mostly based on reported cases. Other studies estimate that up to 50% of employees will experience bullying at some point of their careers.
Since many cases go unreported, the true incidence is arguably much higher than that. Workplace bullying has been referred to as America’s silent epidemic. Technology has armed bullies with a wide range of tools for operating behind the scenes. Indeed, cyberbullying–bullying through digital means–is now a well-known phenomenon and it is rapidly catching up with physical forms of bullying.
A growing number of scientific studies are attempting to define a common psychological profile for workplace bullies. Here are the key findings so far:
Unsurprisingly, office bullies are more likely to display maladaptive character features, particularly the dark triad of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Although these traits tend to harm long-term relationships–not just at work, but in any area of life–they often confer short-term advantages, such as the ability to fake competence by displaying high levels of confidence, risk-taking, and charisma. This enables bullies to move against colleagues through various interpersonal tactics such as superficial charm, fearless confrontation, and bold aggression.
What is most surprising is that they often pick on people who have the same profile, perhaps because they are competing with them for status. As predicted, bullies have also been found to be more aggressive and less empathetic, as well as more morally disengaged, than their counterparts.
One of the reasons for the high preponderance of bullies at work is that they often exhibit positive character qualities, which co-exists with their dark side. For instance, studies have shown that bullies are often outgoing, gregarious and assertive. They are also quite fearless and confident, and those qualities tend to be rewarded in most corporate environments, particularly in the Western world. Furthermore, bullies are often quite high on thrill-seeking, which tends to be linked to higher social status especially among younger employees. In fact, recent evidence suggests that some bullies may have higher emotional intelligence, which may enable them to read and influence colleagues to their own advantage. Thus, the combination of higher social skills and lower moral standards may result in more manipulative and mischievous actions at work, especially if people get a kick out of this.
Given the consequences of workplace bullying–from stress, mental health problems, and absenteeism at the individual level to productivity loss at the organizational level–recruiters and hiring managers would do well to screen out individuals with a propensity or predisposition towards bullying behaviors. This would require paying attention to personality characteristics, especially dark side traits.
It is also noteworthy that bullying is not just a function of personality, but also the context in which people work, which explains the high geographical variability in bullying rates across the globe. For instance, research indicates that workplace bullying is much more prevalent in chaotic work environments and highly political organizational cultures. Indeed, when people are dissatisfied with working conditions, poorly managed, and under stress, they are more likely to engage in bullying behaviors even if they are not naturally predisposed to do so.
Based on the independent research evidence from interventions and prevention programs, there are four key recommendations organizations should consider:
1. Raise awareness, encourage reporting and whistleblowing: these obvious HR processes have been found to minimize and even prevent bullying.
2. Naming and shaming: it does help to expose and punish bullies in public. Mostly because it shows that senior leaders want a culture that truly condemns bullying.
3. Coaching bullies: interventions aimed at inhibiting aggressive tendencies in aggressors can be highly effective.
4. Leverage technologies: since bullying is often manifested via digital means, companies can use text mining and email scraping tools to monitor and punish bullying. One clear “advantage” of cyberbulling–vis-à-vis traditional forms of bullying–is that it always leaves digital records, so all one needs to do is retrieve the evidence from the server or cloud.
In short, bullying will probably never go away completely, but organizations can do a great deal to minimize and prevent it. And it all starts with a clear understanding of the personality of the bullies.