Stand Up Against Bullying

Differences Between A Workplace Bully and A Target

Targets
caucasian man and woman pointing at each other
One of the biggest obstacles that hinders leadership from intervening in workplace bullying is one simple question. Who does the leader believe, the target or the bully? Workplace bullying becomes a nightmare scenario of they said/they said which results in leaders not knowing who is telling the truth. This is understandable because leaders may not know what workplace bullying is and aggression can be extremely subtle and covert. This makes it extremely difficult for leadership to understand, detect, expose, and stop. Howeverthis is no excuse. It is the job of leaders to understand workplace bullying so they can decipher the truth about what is going on in their organization.

"A bully considers themselves a victim and will make no attempt to fix the environment."

There are clues that leaders can follow to determine the bully from the target. One of these is word usage. In the workplace, bullies use different words and the rhetoric used by the bully is generally different from that of a target. Understanding what these differences are in the use of words can help leaders decipher who is the bully. Leaders need to develop excellent active listening skills so they can hear the subtle variances.


Bullies often use language that blames others for their behavior. The bully will accuse other people, mostly the target, for what is happening, and they will not take responsibility for any part of the organizational dysfunction. For example, when asked about mistreatment of their colleagues, aggressors use phrases such as, “I am the one who is being bullied.” “I am not responsible for bad behavior because I am a good professional.” Or “there is nothing wrong with our environment, the target is just making waves and the target is not doing their job.”
On the other hand, the target will use statements such as “What can I do to help change the environment?” “I just want the workplace improve, so what can I do to make it better.” Or “I will do my part and change what I can.”

.......bullies are storytellers and tattle talers.  Targets, on the other hand, ---discuss work with their boss

A bully considers themselves a victim and will make no attempt to fix the environment. This attitude is demonstrated by the bullies words. Targets generally want to improve the workplace and their statements emphasize a desire to so. This is a key difference for leaders to understand as they intervene in the workplace. Bullies blame others and do not see anything wrong with the current environment. Targets want the workplace to improve and are willing to help with this process. Bullies want to maintain the status quo because they do not want to lose their power and control.

Another distinction between targets and bullies is that bullies are storytellers and tattle tales. Bullies spend lots of time talking to their boss and other colleagues about the target when they should be working. This is done to with purpose so that the bully has strong relationships with the boss so they will be believed when they are exposed as the workplace bully. Workplace bullies are skilled liars and manipulators and will double down on their lies when confronted about their bullying.

Targets, on the other hand, tend spend their time working and doing their job. Targets will discuss work with their boss.

If leaders have a person who is in their office and telling stories about their co-workers, this is a red flag that leaders investigate to determine if they have a bully amongst their ranks. Unfortunately, many leaders fall victim to the lies and fabrications of the bully because the bully and the boss have a relationship. The leader relies on the bully to understand who is doing what in the workplace. This makes the leader feel like they have their finger on the pulse of their workplace. As a result of this, leaders tend to believe the bully over the target. This can be devastating because if leaders do not hold the bully accountable, their workplace will suffer.


Leaders need to take any assertion of bullying seriously and they must not take what an alleged bully says as truth. Bullies will continue to be deceitful. Leaders must use a critical and objective lens as investigate their environment and understand that not everything is as it seems. Leaders must be diligent about finding out exactly what is happening in their organization in order to stop and manage workplace bullying.