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Why Bullies Thrive at Work
Many workplace bullies are charming, successful and managers’ favorites, study finds

By Dana Wilkie   6/17/2013
 
They can be charming, presentable, socially skilled, professionally successful and well-regarded by superiors. They can also be workplace bullies.

Despite employer policies that discourage and punish bullying, many workers manage to strategically abuse colleagues while still having successful careers, winning promotions and earning outstanding performance evaluations, according to the first academic study to measure the relationship between bullying and job performance.

“Many bullies can be seen as charming and friendly, but they are highly destructive and can manipulate others into providing them with the resources they need to get ahead,” said Darren Treadway, Ph.D., who co-wrote Political Skill and the Job Performance of Bullies. The associate professor of organization and human resources at the University of New York at Buffalo’s School of Management worked on the report with authors from Ohio’s Youngstown State University, the Technical University of Munich, Germany, and Renmin University of China in Beijing.

The study, which surveyed 76 professionals at a U.S. mental-health facility during two separate quarters in 2011, showed a strong correlation among bullying, social competence and positive job evaluations.

“Our data suggest bullies are actually quite successful on the job,” Treadway said. They perform well. And the problem is, when someone’s performing well, an organization is less likely to go after these people aggressively.”

Instead, when it comes to workers who are productive or well-liked, too many managers choose to ignore bullying or to explain it away if it’s brought to their attention, the researchers found.

“Powerful [people at work] either do not see their behavior or make attributions that the behavior is out of character for the employee,” the researchers wrote.

“Maybe you hired this person and you have an investment in the credibility of the hiring decision you made,” said David Yamada, a professor at Boston’s Suffix University Law School and author of an online blog about the workplace. “If this person reports to you and is positive and praises you, you naturally like that. Especially in the U.S. workplace, which is hierarchical, a lot of managers don’t want to hear about this stuff. They just want to get good news and positive vibes, and it’s easy to overlook problems or turnover statistics.”

Treadway said management’s tendency to ignore bullying by well-liked or productive workers was illustrated by the case of former Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice, who continued to punch, kick and belittle players even after the school’s former director of player development, Eric Murdock, reported the abuse to higher-ups.

“Here’s a guy [Murdock] who’d lived in gyms his whole life, and he was blown away by the level of abuse that was being taken by these students,” Treadway noted. “When you ask why this was allowed, it was allowed because Rice was a hot commodity and a high-profile coach; so the athletic director swept things under the rug.”

The conventional advice to HR managers is to have open-door policies that allow victims to go around or “over” the bully, and to train workers to identify bullying behavior, Yamada said. But the latter may not be easy, he added, because aggressors who are smart, successful and liked by their bosses don’t typically go about bullying blatantly.

“The yelling-boss scenario is obvious,” Yamada said. “But there’s a whole lot of literature on what are called microaggressions—little things that add up to a lot. The forms of bullying that are hardest to unpack are indirect, say, a string of small slights or a performance review that on the surface is defensible but is in reality unfair, or somebody talks harshly to you in private, then follows up with e-mails [copied to others] that make it sound like you’re on great terms. These indirect forms of bullying are the hardest to verify and hardest for the target to figure out. If you’re on the receiving end you start to think, ‘Is my mind playing tricks on me, or is something going on here?’ ”

Darnell Lattal, president and CEO of Atlanta-based workplace consultancy Aubrey Daniels International, agrees that the successful, well-liked employee who also bullies tends to do it subtly.

“Don’t think it does not happen in nearly all operations,” Lattal said. “Bullying is about ‘having my way’ and is all too often the first approach to people management when not getting the results the manager thinks they should. It’s ‘Do it or else.’ ”

In the study, the authors relied in part on past research that showed a correlation between aggressive behavior and high self-esteem, political skill, social skill, cognitive ability, a need to achieve and leadership qualities.

“The ability to read … motivations and emotions may assist bullies in knowing how best to inflict damage on their victim,” the authors wrote of a 1994 study that found that in grade school, teachers rate socially skilled bullies more favorably than bullies with fewer social skills.

“It is likely that employees with a high need for achievement will be more likely to respond with bullying when faced with environments that are highly competitive and the actor has determined a need to isolate and impede their rivals’ success,” the authors wrote.

The study suggests that companies include measures of civility and camaraderie in performance evaluations. Treadway said it’s important that “HR managers demonstrate that changing the workplace culture affects the well-being of employees, whether it means turnover, performance or profitability.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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