Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 2;   January 13, 2010: Covert Bullying

Covert Bullying

by

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

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenAvxBAZVBDrPsUMsVner@ChacataGGfpkMcKbEZiIoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

You worthless piece of trash!Hurtful Clichés: Part I
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
Too much time on his handsHurtful Clichés: Part II
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
A 1940s-era trap fishing boatNasty Questions: Part II
In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
A lizardfish in a typical poseStonewalling: Part I
Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction used by those who wish to stall the forward progress of some effort. Whether the effort is a rival project, an investigation, or just the work of a colleague, the stonewaller hopes to gain advantage. What can you do about stonewalling?
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United StatesAgenda Despots: Part I
Many of us abhor meetings. Words like boring, silly, and waste come to mind. But for some meeting Chairs, meetings aren't boring at all, because they fear losing control of the agenda. To maintain control, they use the techniques of the Agenda Despots.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

North Fork Fire in Yellowstone, 1988Coming July 27: The Risks of Too Many Projects: Part II
Although taking on too many projects risks defocusing the organization, the problems just begin there. Here are three more ways over-commitment causes organizations to waste resources or lose opportunities. Available here and by RSS on July 27.
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Frank MurphyAnd on August 3: The Passion-Professionalism Paradox
Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension. Available here and by RSS on August 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTdqIPZAWzBeQuEyaner@ChacEtiHvlIcvakvUzJJoCanyon.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

Public seminars

Sudoku Solutions, INK: A Simulation of a Project-Oriented Organization
In thCross-Functional Teams: How Organizations Actually Workis workshop, we simulate a company that solves Sudoku puzzles for its customers. Each puzzle is a project, solved by a project team led by a project manager. Team members hail from different parts of the organization, such as QA or the Department of Threes. Puzzles have different values, and the company must strive to meet revenue goals. The metaphor is uncanny. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.