Toxic People in the Workplace: Bullied by the Boss

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According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 60.4 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying. The study defined workplace bullying as “repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees; abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse”(Namie 2017). This type of abuse is occurring frequently in U.S. workplaces: 61% of Americans are aware of bullying in the workplace, 19% report being bullied, and another 19% report witnessing bullying behavior. Moreover, the disturbing fact uncovered in the study is that most workplace bullying was perpetrated by the boss (Namie 2017). Bully bosses use threatening, humiliating, or intimidating behavior to gain and maintain control over subordinates. They will use outright or subtle forms of manipulation, misdirection and scapegoating to create workplace drama or to achieve their goals.
Overt manipulation is easily identified and is often accompanied by threats. A classic example is the threat of being fired if the subordinate doesn’t behave the way the bully boss wants him to, or the threat of a layoff due to lack of work. The turmoil of the constant threat of job loss keeps employees off balance while the bully boss enjoys a one up position. Subtle or covert manipulation is harder to pinpoint. It could be manifested in the physical space, for example, the supervisor arranging desk assignments so that the staff member he can most easily control is physically close to him. Flattery is another manipulation tactic. The bully boss may flatter his target, picking them for special assignments or to receive extra rewards for toeing the line. Before you get jealous of the attention your coworker is receiving, consider this: The chosen one is not favored for their intellect or skill but rather because the toxic boss finds it easy to control and manipulate them. The target who is easily flattered by this treatment may think that the abuser really likes and appreciates them, only to be blindsided when the abuser later lashes out. When the bully boss is challenged he may tell an outright lie, which is a form of misdirection. He may, for example, say that he is acting on the direction of a senior manager, having already made sure that the target has no direct access to the senior management, so that lie cannot be discovered (Simon 2010, 2011, 2014).
Work sabotage take many forms, the bully boss may use withholding and misdirection to create turmoil. One trick a bully boss may use is to withhold vital information from subordinates, or to provide vague instruction. This tactic makes it impossible for employees to perform – let alone excel, at assigned tasks. Think of it as when a neighbor shares the recipe for her award-winning fudge but withholds a key ingredient. Whatever results from the attempt to duplicate the delicious fudge, it will never be as good as hers. The toxic supervisor keeps information from employees to prove that they cannot work without constant supervision, because they must ask for the boss’ “help” or “expertise.” The supervisor also enjoys an ego boost every time one of his subordinates asks for direction or clarification. He withholds knowledge from the employees to illicit the inquires and thus exert control over them (Basile 2015). Withholding is also a key part of gaslighting, an extreme case of manipulation where the abuser withholds information from the target and replaces it with false information – leading the target to question their own interpretation of reality. Gaslighting in the workplace is a topic I will cover that in detail in a separate post.
Scapegoating is a manipulation tactic in which the bully boss instigates the abuse of a target but manipulates one or more other people to perpetuate the abuse. The targeted individual may be someone who has resisted the bully’s manipulation or is perceived as being weak. The bully will seize on any problems the target has, a substance abuse problem, for example, to use against them. The team may already resent that they must pick up the slack for someone who is struggling. The bully draws a circle of influence, selecting certain members of the team to be insiders, and excluding the target. This may be accomplished by emails sent to those team members making jokes or discussing the target’s shortcomings. The bully boss prompts the ostracizing of the target by the team and discourages any empathy the coworkers may feel toward the target, indicating that the abuse is a consequence of the target’s own behavior and shortcomings. As the target’s esteem is eroded, he cannot function effectively at work. He is now so intimidated and paralyzed by fear he cannot complete basic tasks. The bully sends emails pointing out all of these errors to his accomplices, and they all have a good laugh at the target’s expense. The bully now can enjoy watching the abuse he gets the target’s coworkers to inflict.
What can be done about bullying in the workplace? Psychologist and author Dr. George Simon (2010) advises that first and foremost, a person must be willing to let go of the harmful misconceptions they hold on to about the bully and their behavior. It doesn’t matter their motivation (they are toxic) or if they are aware of what they are doing (they are). Contrary to what we were taught to believe, workplace bullies are not acting out because they are insecure. They are toxic, manipulative, and possibly evil people who are intent on inflicting harm in order to further their own agenda. End of story.
Accept that there are people in the world who absolutely will cause pain and suffering to get ahead, and then recognizing toxic behaviors gets easier. The advantage of recognizing toxic behavior is being able to respond rather than react when the bully is trying to manipulate. The bully is attempting to illicit a reaction, responding is a refusal to participate in the bully’s manipulation. Likewise, do not participate in the bully’s manipulation and scapegoating of others. Leave the emails unanswered, do not forward the “jokes,” and if appropriate, forward any harassing communication to human resources or a union representative. Finally, accept that the only solution may be to resign and seek employment elsewhere.
Coming Next: Toxic People in the Workplace: Am I crazy? Gaslighting in the Workplace.
(Spoiler- no, you are not crazy!)
References Cited
Basile, Lisa Marie
            2015    Gaslighting In The Workplace: Is It Happening To You? The Gloss.
Namie, Gary, PhD
            2017    WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, June 2017. Workplace Bullying Institute,, accessed April 4, 2018.
Simon, George K.
            2010    In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. Kindle ed. Parkhurst Brothers, Inc.

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