EQ primer: Workplace bullying and how to overcome it

Written by: Tracey Knight
Published on: Apr 15, 2019

knight bullying

In recent years, there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on eradicating bullying in K-12 schools. But where do all the bullies go after graduation? You probably already know: Bullying and other oppressive practices have become a common, but frequently overlooked, leadership style.

It’s relatively simple to create new policies, processes, and programs to address these issues. But shifting the attitudes, behaviors, and belief systems of the people within an organization is a different ball game altogether – and it starts with looking at ourselves.

When a bully takes charge

Bullying is an aggressive but sometimes subtle or passive-aggressive behavior that creates a hostile work environment. This is a place where individuals are mentally, emotionally, physically, or sexually harassed, disrespected, abused, or oppressed. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Micromanagement
  • Gossip
  • Being ignored
  • Feeling isolated or siloed from other team members
  • Sabotage
  • Being lied to or about
  • Being intentionally put in a position where you cannot succeed because pertinent information or resources are withheld, and
  • Feeling required to live up to unspoken expectations or conditions.

There are three common roles people can fall into when there is bullying in the workplace: the Menace, the Minion, and the Martyr.

The Menace tends to be dictatorial and overtly aggressive. But, if you look a little closer, you might see someone who is mentally and emotionally fragile, with a short-sided and often self- serving vision. The Menace wreaks havoc in the workplace (and every other relationship they have) by insisting that everyone fit into their perception of what is “right or wrong,” “good or bad,” “acceptable or unacceptable.” This style of leadership may include:

  • Seeing others as subordinates rather than colleagues or partners
  • Being hyper-stringent about compliance with policies and practices, except when it doesn’t work to their advantage
  • Insisting that others work at their rate, pace, and availability
  • Needing to be in the know, nit-picking, and requiring excessive accountability, especially around details that are trivial or petty
  • Trusting only their knowledge and viewing other’s skills as inferior
  • Needing to explain, micromanage, or provide a roadmap for everything
  • Controlling the conversation and using a demeaning tone or abusive language
  • Telling and dictating rather than asking and coaching
  • Being paranoid about what others are thinking and saying, and
  • Being concerned with image; putting on façades in front of superiors or the public to camouflage their oppressive nature; and intimidating or “warning” others not to rock the boat or mess up in front of outsiders.

The Minion believes they can minimize conflict and ensure their own safety if they allow the Menace to have their way. Although they do not necessarily agree with the bully’s point of view or behavior, they will find a way to satisfy the Menace’s directives. Because Minions “go along to get along,” you never truly know where they stand.

Another characteristic of the Minion is vicariously acquiring power under the reign of the Menace. They vacillate between exerting power and authority, and taking the path of least resistance by subordinating their opinions and abilities. While the Menace tends to be dictatorial and overtly aggressive, the Minion uses covert manipulation – subtly pulling strings behind the scenes.

The Martyr is defined by their unwillingness to take ownership: They want to take responsibility for the “good parts” and blame others for anything that goes sideways. They are in the habit of delegating responsibility for their opinions, right to be heard, and decisions to anyone but themselves. Martyrs are also known to be big time complainers – but when someone offers a way out, they either deflect or look for reasons why the suggestion will not work.

Because they do not feel powerful enough to take control, Martyrs subject themselves to abuse while waiting for a “superhero” to fly in, defeat the bully, and save the day. News flash for the Martyr: The Menace is not preventing you from being powerful – you are! The Menace (and Minions for that matter) can only do as much as the Martyr allows.

Managing the bully within

You’re probably wondering how to use this information to create change in the workplace. What I am going to share next might be surprising and cause some discomfort, but I invite you to explore the potential for improving yourself and your organization.

The fact is this: The Menace, Minion, and Martyr are all you. At some time or another, we have each played the role of bully, “yes man,” and victim. Go back, review the qualities for each personality, and see if there is not at least one characteristic you recognize in yourself (or have been accused of).

Everyone tends to vacillate among roles depending on the people and circumstances we’re dealing with. In one situation, we might decide to minimize conflict by “going along to get along.” In another, feelings of powerless might lead us to take on a victim persona. In another, we may use “bullish” tactics to influence an outcome.

This is not about absolutes, labeling, or judging ourselves, but realizing our true leadership potential. It is much easier to critique others and hope they will change, but change only comes from self-reflection and personal integrity, receiving honest feedback from trusted sources, and making an individual commitment to personal growth.

Here are a few recommendations for managing your alter egos.

  • Tame the Menace. When you know your internal Menace is rearing his or her ugly head, repeat whichever is applicable: Down, girl! or Down, boy! This false self wants to control circumstances, protecting you from the uncertainty and exposure of revealing your true self.

    To combat the Menace, consider shifting your idea of what it means to be vulnerable. When you have a strong sense of self-knowledge and self-acceptance (including the “light” and “shadow” aspects of your personality), you stop worrying about rejection. Instead, you find solace in the devoted, trustworthy, and loyal friend that is you. Being comfortable with your strengths and weaknesses means you know how to stay in your lane, and let others do the same.
  • Stand your ground with the Minion. How do you feel when you encounter someone you perceive to be dishonest, disloyal, or a fence-rider? More than likely, you put up your defenses or avoid them altogether. The same thing happens when you lie to yourself or act in defiance of your values: It becomes increasingly difficult to rely upon yourself – let alone for others to rely on you.

    Permit yourself to have independent thoughts, and then honor your truth at all costs. When we are honest about our motives and intended outcome, it can be felt by the whole team. Not everyone – including you – may always like what is being said, but authentic intentions give each team member the certainty that they can work together to find a resolution.
  • Empower the Martyr. Tell your inner Martyr to rise up, and reclaim dominion over your life. Your personal power lies in your choices. When you give up that power – failing to enforce boundaries or passively allowing others to make decisions – you must live with the consequences.

    Own every decision, regardless of whether you like the outcome. When you own it, you can decide to change it. When others own it, they get the power, and you must wait for them to decide again. Not every decision will produce the result you desire, but be sure to look for and embrace the lesson in every experience – and whenever you hit a set-back, persist until you get it right.

It is our individual willingness to develop a strong sense of self-worth, self-trust, courage, and resilience that are the keys to managing the Menace, Minion, and Martyr. When you do this, you become a master at leading people and your own life.

Tracey Knight is a trainer, speaker, and certified life, career, and personal empowerment coach, with more than 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur, nonprofit executive, and educator. She’s also a Nonprofit University instructor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, Work for Good’s parent company. Those in Georgia looking for a deeper dive into this topic and others can register for her upcoming courses: Managing Pressure and Maintaining Balance, the Certificate of Workplace Communication and Leadership, and the Certificate of Change Management.