Bullying in the Workplace

When someone talks about a “bully” most of us immediately think about bullying behaviors that occur in elementary, middle or high school.  Unfortunately, bullying is a relatively common phenomenon in the adult workplace.  Bullying is expensive and has lasting effects upon an organization. 

·      Between 35 and 50% of Americans have experienced bullying in their careers. (Lutgen-Sandvik et al, 2007)

·      Bullying can affect the mental health of ALL employees—not just the employees being bullied.  (Hogh et al, 2011).

·      Bullying can cost an organization directly in terms of reputation, litigation fees, early retirement pay-outs, long-term absenteeism, workers compensation and counseling costs (Bond, 2010)

How do I know if there is bullying at my workplace?
Bullying can occur in multiple ways within an organization and bullying behaviors are not always explicit.  Bullying can come from a boss or a colleague, but it can even come from an entire work group.  Bullying is occurring when someone:

Verbally abuses you

Questions your adequacy and commitment

Undermines your work

Unnecessarily monitors your work

Spreads rumors about you

Isolates you at work

Takes credit for your work

Uses dismissive body language

Intimidates you on a regular basis

Intrudes on your privacy

Overloads you with work

Impedes your success

Assigns work that is below your ability

Evaluates you unfairly

Does not allow you to speak

Deliberately chooses to mispronounce your name

These behaviors can cause a company wide, “cessation of ideas, downturn in employee morale, loss of talent, and hostile litigation” (USA Today, 2015) all of which affect a company’s bottom line. 

Why do people bully?

Some research have suggests that slightly more than 25% of all bullying in the workplace is instigated by only 1% of the employee population who researchers call “corporate psychopaths” (Boddy, 2011). However, this means that the majority of workplace bullying may be occurring by well meaning (or at least not ill intentioned) individuals.  


There are two main hypotheses found in the academic psychological literature regarding systemic workplace bullying.  The first is known as the “work environment hypothesis” (Leymann,1996).  This theory considers bullying at work to be largely due to poor psychosocial working conditions.  In other words, a negative work culture.  The other major theory is that individual characteristics of an individual play a prominent role in workplace bullying. 


Unlike the workplace (where most folks tend to focus on an individual being bullied versus the larger work system) in the literature about bullying most attention is given to negative work culture.  However, recent research suggests that an individual’s perception of a high stakes/high demand work environment “creates conditions of vulnerability that make employees more likely to become targets of negative behaviors” and that when an individual believes that there is little that they can do to control that environment they may choose to behave in ways that explicitly and implicitly shift blame for failure or the potential of failure to others.  For example, an employee may choose to criticize another’s work, or withhold information that affects another employee’s job performance (Francioli et al., 2016). 


What this means is that it does not necessarily matter if an environment is actually abusive.  If a business is engaged in a high stakes/high demand work environment then the conditions are ripe for that individual to perceive that they are being bullied.  


This is the primary reason that we believe that being proactive about creating a work environment that explicitly fosters a collaborative culture is essential to a business operating at optimal levels. 


What kind of workplace is most likely to foster bullying behaviors?

In addition to being a “high stakes” environment, David Cory, an expert in emotional intelligence in the workplace suggests that certain types of  “Traditional Dominance” or “autocratic business leaders” can create cultures that foster bullying.  Immediately following the industrial revolution managers were recruited for businesses from the ranks of officers in the military. These individuals were able to create order and necessary human organization within, often dangerous, factories.  However these individuals brought with them an autocratic method of leadership.  While this leadership practice might have been very appropriate during the industrial revolution it is far less appropriate for a contemporary business that relies on motivating and inspiring its employees.  The message that is transmitted by an autocratic leader is one that sounds like, “If I can dominate you then I can MAKE you do what I need you to do and therefore I will be able make this company successful.” 

The problem with this approach is that humans really do not like to be dominated.  And while this approach MIGHT be appropriate for very young (and sometimes undisciplined) men serving in an early twentieth century military, a contemporary workplace is characterized by far more diversity, a focus on information, and a need for collaborative teamwork. 

Here are some primary features of both dominance and partnership paradigms as they relate to management and leadership styles:


Dominance Paradigm

  • Top Down
  • Power over
  • One way Communication
  • Commands given
  • Compliance Focus
  • Limited Scope (to leader's vision)
  • Simple Leadership

Partnership Paradigm

  • Bottom Up
  • Distributed Leadership
  • Creativity focused
  • Dialogue favored over commands
  • Collaborative Focus
  • Unlimited Scope
  • Complex and Flexible Leadership

Isn’t this just a fancy way of saying that all hierarchical authority is bad?

Not really.  What we are saying is that there are serious limitations to autocratic styles of leadership. If we demand and command we are often not entering into dialogue to find out the best way of doing something for the business.  It is also possible that we are ruling with fear and when other managers within an organization emulate our behavior our organization becomes more susceptible to bullying behaviors. 

How can 2Human Strategies help our organization?

We are SO glad you asked this question.  At 2Human Strategies we are REALLY good at helping you to understand your self and your employee culture.  This is called emotional intelligence.  We also excel at helping organizations shift to utilizing a partnership leadership paradigm versus an autocratic paradigm.  We believe that very few managers seek to drive organizational behaviors downward, and we also believe that VERY few individuals actually want to engage in bullying behaviors.  However some specific skills are required in order to move an organization to a partnership paradigm.  When we utilize a partnership paradigm we are far more concerned with how do people feel about the organization?  How do they feel about working there?   

Most often managers within organizations are promoted to manager positions because of some sort of technical expertise that the manager might possess.  However, just because an individual has technical expertise does not mean that they know how to support other people or that they know how to motivate or manage people effectively.  We are very good at helping managers understand how to do this.  

One of the tools that we use to investigate these questions is the EQ2.0.  The EQ2.0 is based on the way people view and think about themselves.  It also assesses several domains that are crucial to working relationships.  These include: self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal knowledge, decision making, and stress management skills.  With this helpful tool we can start to discern whether or not people in an organization are in-touch with their emotions and whether they are involved in a role that promotes the development of relationships that translates into effective working behaviors and relationships.  Our goal is to improve behaviors will allow individuals to take a more considered approach toward both themselves and others.  We help your organization to create a culture that empowers versus bullying. 




Boddy, C. (2011).  Corporate psychopaths, bullying and unfair supervision in the workplace.  Journal of Business Ethics.  100(3), 367-379. 


Bond, S. A., Tuckey, M. R., & Dollard, M. F. (2010). Psychosocial safety climate, workplace bullying, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress.Organization Development Journal28(1), 37.


Hogh, A., Mikkelsen, E. G., & Hansen, A. M. (2011). Individual consequences of workplace bullying/mobbing. Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Developments in theory, research, and practice, 107-128.


Francioli, L., Høgh, A., Conway, P., Costa, G., Karasek, R., & Hansen, Å. (2016). Do personal dispositions affect the relationship between psychosocial working conditions and workplace bullying?, Ethics & Behavior, 26:6, 451-469,


Leymann, H. (1996). The content and development of mobbing at work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 5, 735–753.


Lutgen-Sandvik, P., Tracy, S., Alberts, J. (2007).  Burned by bullying in the American workplace: Prevalence, perception, degree and impact.  Journal of Management Studies. 44(6), 837-862. 


Rayner, C., Hoel, H., & Cooper, C. L. (2002). Bullying at work: What we know, who is to blame and what can we do. London: Taylor Francis.


USA Today (August 1, 2015).  Bullying Bosses Bad for Business.  


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