by Rick Brenner
The workplace bully is a tragically familiar figure to many. Bullying is costly to organizations, and painful to everyone within them — especially targets. But the situation is worse than many realize, because much bullying is covert. Here are some of the methods of covert bullies.
A view of Hut Point, in Antarctica, base of the Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) of Robert. F. Scott. Scott had insisted that his establishment of this base gave him sole base privileges in the area. Indeed, he extracted a promise from Ernest Shackleton not to base his Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909) anywhere in the Ross Sea region, within hundreds of miles of Hut Point. Scott's insistence on his proprietary interest in the region has been characterized by some — not by all — as bullying. Photo by Dr. Eric R. Christian, courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The indicators of workplace bullying are often obvious — anger, hostility, burdensome assignments, shouting, abusive language, or violence. But much bullying is covert. It can be so subtly ambiguous that bystanders disagree about whether it's actually bullying. But in every sense that matters, covert bullying is costly and destructive.
Because covert bullying can persist undetected, it can be more costly and more destructive than overt bullying. That's why recognizing covert bullying is important, whether you're a target or less directly involved.
Yet, under the veneer of civility, graciousness, and good nature, the tactics of the covert bully are at least as effective as the tactics of overt bullies. Here are some indicators of covert bullying.
- Your feelings
- Targets of covert bullies sometimes deny that they're being bullied, even though they feel bullied. Many believe, incorrectly, that all bullying must be blatantly offensive, abusive, and hostile. If you feel bullied, there's a strong chance that you're being bullied, no matter how "nice" the bully is.
- The use of privacy
- Since covert bullies want to maintain an image of innocence, they avoid any behavior that threatens that image. When executing bullying tactics, if the behavior is overtly bullying in nature, the covert bully avoids witnesses.
- Since the primary goal of bullies is the exercise of power, bullies seek to coerce others to carry out tasks against their wishes. The overt bully uses force or threats to carry out the coercion, but the covert bully favors subtle manipulation, deceit, and trickery. Consequently, the target might actually experience a desire to please the covert bully. Only after time passes, and new information reaches the target, is the spell broken, if ever.
- Because Targets of covert bullies
sometimes deny that they're
being bullied, even though
they feel bulliedthe bullying is covert, opinions differ about whether it's even happening. Some observers are certain, one way or the other. Some are uncertain. Some actively refuse to have an opinion, often as a means of denying their feelings of confusion. Even targets can be unsure, casting about for alternate explanations for their feelings of being abused.
- The roller coaster
- Occasionally, observers or targets begin to sense that bullying is happening — or perhaps they conclude it with certainty. Sensing these changes, covert bullies then take steps to repair relationships using a variety of tactics. They grant favors, do favors unbidden, or voluntarily step forward to heroically assume undesirable responsibilities. This alternation of abuse and graciousness disrupts coalitions, confounds the opposition, and confuses targets.
If a covert bully has been in place for a while, it's likely that those in positions to address the problem already know about it. If that's so, the real problem is that those responsible for dealing with the bully have failed to do so. Appealing to them is unlikely to work. Look higher — or move on. Top Next Issue
Are you being targeted by a workplace bully? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2010 survey indicated that 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand, and that bullying is about four times more prevalent than all other forms of illegal harassment combined. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just USD 9.99, Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Conflict Management
- Deniable Intimidation
- Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
- Practice Positive Politics
- Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
- In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
- Untangling Tangled Threads
- In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
- See No Bully, Hear No Bully
- Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- MITRE, in Bedford, MA: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Managing Virtual Meetings for Real Results
- Leading or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: