In my Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 1960's, everyone knew who the bully was. The bully got in your face, threatened you, called you names, and was someone you never wanted to meet on the subway. In the workplace, the classic bully should be reprimanded, sanctioned, and fired. There is no place for bullies in a functioning, healthy work environment. The ignored problem, however, is with the machinations and temperament of the "subtle workplace bully."
The subtle workplace bully is a person in power who may never scream, who may never lose their temper, and who may be seen by many as a magnificent leader, but who nonetheless creates in their subordinates and peers a sense of apprehension, fear, and hesitation. Rather than bringing people out, the subtle workplace bully creates a psychic prison which prevents their direct reports from growing, contributing, and developing professionally.
The leader who is a subtle bully has numerous levers of cognitive dissonance to rationalize their behavior. They may use their sense that they are focused on the collective good to overshadow or even justify their behavior. In this context, there are at least five questions you can ask to determine if you are a subtle workplace bully.
1. Are you impatient? Not occasional impatience, but is it your practice to cut people off and jump in to finish their thoughts and complete their sentences? Does your body language reflect a jitteriness that suggests that you want to move on? Are your thoughts more about what you're going to say rather than listening and taking in what others say? Do you judge and form an opinion before giving others a full hearing? Not giving others an opportunity to express themselves may signal impatience, but if done from a position of power and hierarchy, it is a mode of bullying.
2. Do you seek false perfection? Do you constantly change the criteria and standards by which you judge people or projects? Do you move the goalposts? Do you review every detail as if you were sitting on the precipice of Armageddon? Do you hold every decision, minor or major, to unrealistic standards? Are mistakes never dismissed but always admonished? Beneath your micro-managing umbrella, mistakes are inevitable and may even become more frequent. You think that you are setting high standards and reaching for quality. But the road to quality is rarely paved with nitpicking. Your tonality has a sense of condensation and more than a whiff of "got-you." You may think you're seeking perfection, but in the process, you are putting others down.
3. Do you de-legitimize the efforts of others? Do you take unnecessary digs? Do you question their intent, their education, their competence? Do you put others in a defensive--or defenseless--position? Do you consciously minimize the contributions of others?
4. Are you a bad-mouther? Do you talk to your peers or superiors about the shortcomings of your team? You don't use the formal evaluation process, but you make your discontent known through a series of careless comments, "You know how difficult it is to work with her..." "You know what he's like..." "You won't believe what she's done now..." You use little throwaway lines that place yourself in a martyred situation having to bear the burden of what you see as the incompetence of others.
5. Do you constantly explain your behavior? Do you come into work with an emotional hangover and a tinge of embarrassment from the day before, explaining why you got so carried away, why you were so critical, and what made you so frustrated? Do you rationalize why you had to be so demanding and outrageous? Do you come in the office the day after with a touch of discomfort to justify your overbearing attitude? Do you excuse your behavior as passionate commitment, instead of apologizing and recognizing that you overstepped boundaries?
If you see yourself in the answers to these questions, you may be a subtle workplace bully. You may not act like this at home. Others may not perceive you in a malevolent light. You may well know that the behavior itself is disruptive and contrary to your aspiration to create a thriving team and organization.
What can you do about it? Become mindful of the situations that lead to this behavior. Realize the disruptive, dysfunctional, and destructive outcomes that this behavior causes. You unwittingly drive people into their cave and shut them down, when you need them to be open and in your corner. Dialoguing with your peers and subordinates and possibly seeking coaching may serve you well.
But is this really who you are? It's a slippery slope from the subtle workplace bully to the schoolyard bully.