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January 13, 2010 Volume 10, Issue 2
 
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Covert Bullying

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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 Anarctica, base of the Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) of Robert. F. Scott

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.
Spell-casting
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.
Confusion
Because Targets of covert bullies
sometimes deny that they're
being bullied, even though
they feel bullied
the 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: What Do You Need?  Next Issue
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101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesAre 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!

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See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

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