HomeTalent ManagementBuilding Future Fit Teams: Dealing with the team Bully

Building Future Fit Teams: Dealing with the team Bully

By  Kerryn Kohl.

This week’s column is inspired by a recent school incident. It got me thinking that although bullying may be rife at schools there are tons of bullies in the workplace too.

Heck, who knows maybe it’s even the same kids, but bigger! They’ve just grown out of Name calling, at least to your face.

I did a quick Google search and was surprised at the amount of articles that popped up on this topic. Bullying is undoubtedly rife in the workplace. In fact, Gary Namie, PhD, author of The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels & Snakes from Killing Your Organization (Wiley, 2011) pegs the bully rate at “35% according to the 2010 Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) survey” with bosses being the main perpetrator (in 72% of incidents). (https://hiring.monster.com/hr/hr-best-practices/workforce-management/hr-management-skills/workplace-bullying.aspx)

Two things strike me when looking at this, firstly 35% that is really high, and secondly, the problem is so pervasive that there’s a Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI)… (WTF). Namie defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:

Bullying to me extends beyond these to include those that assault your team on a daily basis with a negative can’t do attitude, or those that are willing to step all over people to get what they want, it’s the manipulators and the aggressors. It’s those drivers well known to leave bodies behind.

Even as adults when it comes to dealing with the bully we adopt the same ineffective strategies as when we we’re kids. We lay low, we’re grateful it isn’t us, we call in our parents (lawyers or unions), or we try to confront it ourselves.

In early 2012, WBI looked at the effectiveness of these strategies. They asked 1,598 individuals who had experienced bullying in the workplace about the strategies they adopted and how effective they thought they were. The results are frightening. Among the strategies reviewed the least effective was direct confrontation, which was only found to be 3.57% effective, with the highest effectiveness rate weighing in at 16.4% and this was only attained through an actual lawsuit being filed. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/09/20/how-to-deal-with-a-bullying-boss/#4499b8223d37)

Unfortunately, this means that the person being bullied really only has 2 options. They both stay and try to take it. Which will eventually lead them down the depressive and anxious path which will compromise their performance. Or they leave. Either way, you and your team are placed at a disadvantage.

There is a strong business case for you as the leader, to get involved and address this issue swiftly and assertively. Bullies are costing you time and money. They are the reason your good people will leave. “An earlier online study by the Workplace Bullying Institute explored the impact of bullying on the targets’ health. Upon asking respondents to complete a 33-item symptoms checklist, WBI found that the top five health problems among those bullied at work are: anxiety (76%), loss of concentration (71%), disrupted sleep (71%), hypervigilance symptoms (60%), and stress headaches (55%).”  (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/09/20/how-to-deal-with-a-bullying-boss/#4499b8223d37)

This does not bode well for trying to build a future fit performance driven team.

The workplace bully isn’t always that easy to recognise, but according to Namie, there are some key behaviours you need to be on the lookout for. These include:

  • Pointing out or accusing people of mistakes not really made,
  • Discounting someone’s thoughts or feelings (“oh, that’s silly”) in meetings,
  • Acting out, shouting, or failing to control mood swings in front of the team or deliberately using this behaviour to shame or belittle the target,
  • Disregarding or playing down good quality work that actually deserves recognition,
  • Constantly criticizing or holding the target to a different ‘standard’,
  • Stealing credit for work done by others,
  • Placing unrealistic demands on the target in terms of workload, deadlines, responsibilities, or
  • Sabotaging the target by ensuring the failure of their project by not performing required tasks: signoffs, taking calls, working with collaborators.


As the leader it is up to you to look at how seriously you take bullying and what steps you are putting in place to mitigate this behaviour. It is really not acceptable.  

Encourage discussion within your team around these types of behaviours, and look at developing “rules of engagement” or interaction guidelines based on your team’s values. 

Draw the line. Clearly articulate what behaviour is not acceptable and how this will be dealt with should it rear its ugly head…And FOLLOW THROUGH!

Oh, and one more thing, take some time to reflect on your own actions and behaviours. Are you, or do you sometimes act like the bully in your team? Changing your behaviour will be to you and your teams benefit in the long run, so make sure you take action, swiftly and assertively.

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Kerryn Kohl “big chief little ego” of The Coaching House – Talent Cultivation I am an organisational behaviourist and learning strategist, focusing on the interface between human behaviour and the digitally emergent organisation. A design thinker by nature. I have a consulting focus aimed at value creation and a passion for people development. A self –confessed blue sky thinker and keen star gazer. But most importantly I am a mother to 3 awesome children and a very blessed wife!


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