Stand Up Against Bullying

Is it possible to tell a bully from a target?

Targets Leadership Bully
Different words on paper in a pile with the word leadership on the top
Original Publication May 21, 2017; Edited and Republished February 6, 2023

It is common for leaders to refuse to intervene in bullies because they are uncertain of who to believe. Is it the target or the bully that the leader believes? It's common for workplace bullying to turn into a they said/they said scenario, where leaders don't know who's telling the truth. The reason is that aggression can be extremely subtle and covert, making it difficult for leaders to detect. However, leaders need to understand workplace bullying so they can figure out what's really happening in their organization.

In the workplace, bullies use different words and rhetoric from that of a target. Leaders need to develop excellent active listening skills so they can know the difference. The language used by bullies often blames others for their actions. They will blame others, mostly the target, for what is happening, and they will not accept responsibility for any part of the dysfunction. What aboutism is a tactic used by bullies to deflect allegations of bullying from themselves.

Often, bullies use phrases like, “I am the one who is being bullied.” “Their behavior is not my fault; I am a good professional.” “Our environment is fine, the target is just making a big fuss.”

In contrast, the target uses statements such as “What can I do to help change the environment?” “I just want the workplace to be better.” Or, “I will do my part and change what I can.”

The bully considers themself to be a victim and will not make any effort to change the environment. The target's statements generally indicate a desire to improve the workplace. In order to intervene in the workplace successfully, leaders must understand this difference. People who bully blame others and don't see anything wrong with the current situation. To maintain their power and control, bullies want the status quo to remain the same.In addition to wanting the workplace to improve, targets are willing to assist with this process.

Workplace bullies are skillful liars and manipulators, and they will continue to do so if faced with an aggressor. Unfortunately, many leaders believe the bully's lies and fabrications, leading them to believe the bully over the target. This is a massive mistakes because this only sustains and supports bully culture.

To stop bully culture, leaders must not take sides without thoroughly investigating all the facts in a situation. Bullies must be taken seriously and their statements fact-checked, otherwise they will perpetuate their deceitful ways. Targets and bullies are different, and leaders need to recognize these differences. The differences between these organizations will give leaders a clear sense of what's going on inside their organization and will help them stop bully culture.

Call to Action:
Listen to what is being said in your workplace and identify areas where you can intervene to support a positive, healthy work environment.