Home The Ultimate RelationshipBusiness & Leadership How Workplace Bullying Destroys Productivity

How Workplace Bullying Destroys Productivity

Part One: Bullying and Well-Being

written by Ray Williams October 1, 2020
How Workplace Bullying Destroys Productivity

Workplace bullying is an epidemic in North America, one that has huge hidden costs in terms of employee well-being and productivity. Bullying can encompass psychological harassment, emotional abuse, sexual misconduct and physical abuse: it involves the conscious repeated effort to wound and seriously harm another person, not with violence, but with words and actions. Bullying damages the physical, emotional and mental health of the person who is targeted.

Bullying behaviour shows as an abuse of power between supervisors and subordinates in the workplace. Supervisors release their own pressure to bully subordinates with their higher power due to workplace bullying. It is always related to [the] management style of the supervisors. An authoritative management style is accompanied by bullying behaviours which can make subordinates fear so that supervisors can bolster their authority over others. (Wiki)

On the other hand, some researchers agree that bullying behaviours can be a positive force for performance in the workplace. Workplace bullying can contribute to organizational power and control. If an organization wants to improve this situation in the workplace, strategies and policies must be put in place to improve it. Lacking policy about bullying, like low-monitoring or no punishment will result in tolerating bullying in an organization.

Bullying Among Co-Workers

Bullying behaviours in the workplace also exist among colleagues. They can be either the ‘target’ or perpetrator. If workplace bullying happens among the co-workers, witnesses will take sides, either with the target or the perpetrator. Perpetrators always win because witnesses do not want to be the next target. This does encourage perpetrators to continue this behaviour. In addition, the sense of the injustice experienced by a target might lead that person to become another perpetrator who bullies other colleagues who have less power than they do.

Bullying is seen to be prevalent in organizations where employees and managers feel that they have the support, or at least the implicit blessing of senior managers to carry on their abusive and bullying behaviour. Furthermore, new managers will quickly come to view this form of behaviour as acceptable and normal if they see others get away with it and are even rewarded for it.

When bullying happens at the highest levels, the effects may be far-reaching.

People may be bullied irrespective of their organizational status or rank, including senior managers, which indicates the possibility of a negative domino effect, where bullying may cascade downwards, as the targeted supervisors might offload their own aggression onto their subordinates. In such situations, a bullying scenario in the boardroom may actually threaten the productivity of the entire organization. (Wiki)

Blake Ashforth discussed potentially destructive sides of leadership and identified what he referred to as petty tyrants, i.e., leaders who exercise a tyrannical style of management resulting in a climate of fear in the workplace. 

Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement can create an effective climate of fear and doubtWhen employees get the sense that bullies “get away with it,” a climate of fear may be the result. 


Several studies have confirmed a relationship between bullying and autocratic leadership, and an authoritarian way of settling conflicts or dealing with disagreements. An authoritarian style of leadership may create a climate of fear, where there is little or no room for dialogue and where complaining may be considered futile.

The workplace bully is often an expert at knowing how to work the system.

They can spout all the current management buzzwords about supportive management but basically use it as a cover. By keeping their abusive behaviour hidden, any charges made by individuals about his or her bullying will always come down to your word against his. They may have a kiss up kick down personality, wherein they are always highly cooperative, respectful, and caring when talking to upper management but the opposite when it comes to their relationship with those whom they supervise. 


Bullies tend to ingratiate themselves to their bosses while intimidating subordinates. They may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine their fate. Often, a workplace bully will have mastered kiss up kick down tactics that hide their abusive side from superiors who review their performance. (Wiki)

Bullying at work grinds victims down and makes them an ‘easy target’ for further abuse according to new research from the University of East Anglia. The study published in the journal, Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal, reveals a spiral of abuse in which the victims of bullying become anxious, leaving them less able to stand up for themselves and more vulnerable to further harassment. The research suggests that employers should not only crackdown on workplace bullies, but also help victims gain the skills to cope with difficult situations. Ana Sanz Vergel, from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School, said: “This study shows that the relationship between workplace bullying and the psychological impact on victims is much more complex than expected.”

Examples of Bullying Behavior

Research by the Workplace Bullying Institute, suggests that the following are the 25 most common workplace bullying tactics:

  1. Falsely accused someone of “errors” not actually made.
  2. Stared, glared, was nonverbally intimidating and was clearly showing hostility.
  3. Unjustly discounted the person’s thoughts or feelings (“oh, that’s silly”) in meetings.
  4. Used the “silent treatment” to “ice out” and separate from others.
  5. Exhibited presumably uncontrollable mood swings in front of the group.
  6. Made-up rules on the fly that even she/he did not follow.
  7. Disregarded satisfactory or exemplary quality of completed work despite evidence (discrediting).
  8. Harshly and constantly criticized, having a different standard for the target.
  9. Started, or failed to stop, destructive rumours or gossip about the person.
  10. Encouraged people to turn against the person being tormented.
  11. Singled out and isolated one person from other co-workers, either socially or physically.
  12. Publicly displayed gross, undignified, but not illegal, behaviour.
  13. Yelled, screamed, threw tantrums in front of others to humiliate a person.
  14. Stole credit for work done by others (plagiarism).
  15. Abused the evaluation process by lying about the person’s performance.
  16. Declared target “insubordinate” for failing to follow arbitrary commands.
  17. Used confidential information about a person to humiliate privately or publicly.
  18. Retaliated against the person after a complaint was filed.
  19. Made verbal put-downs/insults based on gender, race, accent, age or language, disability.
  20. Assigned undesirable work as punishment.
  21. Created unrealistic demands (workload, deadlines, duties) for the person singled out.
  22. Launched a baseless campaign to oust the person; effort not stopped by the employer.
  23. Encouraged the person to quit or transfer rather than to face more mistreatment.
  24. Sabotaged the person’s contribution to a team goal and reward.
  25. Ensured failure of a person’s project by not performing required tasks, such as sign-offs, taking calls, working with collaborators.

‘Workplace bullying leads to poor health because the victim is exposed to a very stressful situation – resulting in anxiety and lack of vigor. We wanted to see whether deteriorated health could make the employee an easy target for bullying. For example, the victim may have less energy to respond to difficult situations and therefore receive less support from colleagues or supervisors,’ Vergel reported. She goes on to say, ‘Another explanation is the so-called ‘gloomy perception mechanism’ in which anxious employees may evaluate their environment more negatively.’

The research team, which included colleagues from the Complutense University and Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain, tested their theory on 348 Spanish employees. Participants were interviewed about their experiences of bullying and assessed for anxiety and vigor. Vergel contends:

We found that being exposed to workplace bullying leads to deteriorated mental health and decreased well-being. But at the same time, showing anxious behavior puts the victim in a weak position and makes them an easy target – leading to a spiral of abuse.

Cyber Bullying

A second study by Christine Sprigg, Carolyn Axtell and Sam Farley of the University of Sheffield, together with Iain Coyne of Nottingham University was presented at the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) annual Festival of Social Science in November. They shine a light on this relatively new phenomenon — cyber bullying.

Cyber bullying can be defined as using modern communications technology such as e-mails, texts or web-postings to abuse people. And it is as common in the workplace as ‘conventional’ bullying. Yet, the way cyber bullying influences both the victim and witnesses is more hidden in the workplace according to new research by occupational psychologists.

Until now the impact of cyber bullying has mainly focused on younger people in environments such as schools rather than adult workers. The researchers reveal suggestions on how employers should tackle and prevent cyber bullying in the workplace. This will become more important as communication technologies continue to evolve and become more widespread.

Of the 320 people who responded to the survey, around eight out of ten had experienced one of the listed cyber bullying behaviors on at least one occasion in the previous six months. The results also showed 14 to 20 per cent experienced them on at least a weekly basis — a similar rate to conventional bullying.

The research team also examined the impact of cyber bullying on workers’ mental strain and wellbeing.

‘Overall, those that had experienced cyber bullying tended to have higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction,’ Coyne said. ‘In one of our surveys, this effect was shown to be worse for cyber bullying than for conventional bullying.’

The research team also found that the impact of witnessing cyber bullying was different than that seen for conventional bullying.

In the research literature, people who witness conventional bullying also show evidence of reduced wellbeing. However, in our research this does not appear to be the case for the online environment.

Witnesses are much less affected. This might be because of the remote nature of cyberspace — perhaps people empathize less with the victims. This could affect the witness’s reaction to the bullying and potentially whether to report it or otherwise intervene.

Another Canadian study shows bullying gives employees the urge to quit their jobs, which again, can be a significant cost to employers.

Merely showing up to work in an environment where bullying goes on is enough to make many of us think about quitting, a new study suggests. Canadian researchers writing in the journal Human Relations, have found that nurses not bullied directly, but who worked in an environment where workplace bullying occurred, felt a stronger urge to quit than those actually being bullied. These findings on “ambient” bullying have significant implications for organizations, as well as contributing a new statistical approach to the field. (LinkedIn)

To understand whether bullying in the work unit environment can have a negative impact on a worker’s desire to remain in their organization, independent of their personal or direct experiences of workplace bullying, organizational behavior and human resources experts from the University of British Columbia surveyed 357 nurses in 41 hospital units.

Their analysis of the survey results showed that targets of bullying were more likely to be thinking of leaving. They also showed a statistically significant link between working somewhere where bullying was going on and a wish to leave.

Next, the researchers used statistical analysis to test the relationship between turnover intention and whether an individual was experiencing bullying directly. They found that the positive relationship between work unit-level bullying and turnover intentions is stronger for those who rarely experienced direct bullying compared with those who are bullied often.

This is Part One of a two-part series on workplace bullying. Find Part Two here.


Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia.

Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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