How to spot and deal with a bully at work

July 31, 2015, 1:10 PM UTC
Photograph by Bojan Kontrec — Getty Images

Bullying is defined by the duration, frequency, and intentionality of people in positions of power who unduly accuse, criticize, or humiliate others. It is a psychological rather than a physical process, though of course it can be both. It can take many forms. Bullying can be emotion, physical, and/or verbal. It can be done by groups and individuals. We have all seen it on the playground, and some of us have been victims of it at work. It can scar people for life.

We know that bullying is more likely to occur in some environments rather than others: where there is role conflict or ambiguity, where there is acute or chronic work overload, where workers have little autonomy, where there is an atmosphere of fear or redundancy—or sacking or whole organizational collapse—bullying is more likely. Any time there is win-lose, not win-win, as a philosophy there is conflict and often, in the shadows, lurks bullying. Some organizations require considerable self-control and discipline on the part of their members: Those who fall out of line get clear feedback that could be seen as bullying.

Characteristics of bullies and the bullied

What of the personality make-up of both bullies and their victims? Is there a typical profile of both? Is it true that paradoxically both share similar traits? Researchers have found various characteristics of the bully:

  • Poor social skills, low emotional intelligence. Bullies are usually unable to charm, influence, or persuade other people by normal means, and resort to aggressive bullying to get what they want.
  • Low empathy, high callousness. They seem to have little understanding of the effect of their behavior on others and to positively enjoy the pain they cause.
  • Poor impulse control. Their dysfunctional impulsivity means they are quick to anger and lash out at others if things (which are rarely planned) don’t go their way.
  • Emotionally insecure. They tend to have low self-esteem and be uncomfortable in their own skin.


There has been a lot of research both in schools and the workplace on the vulnerable personality, likely to be bullied and the provocative personality likely to end up being the bully. Bullied people tend to be less stable—prone more to anxiety and depression. Many also tend to have low emotional intelligence and few social skills, which means they find it harder to make and keep friends. They’ve tended always to avoid conflict, to be submissive, and to be passive. They withdraw, never asserting themselves. Results suggest they often have poor coping skills making them both supersensitive to bullying and unable to cope adequately when bullied.

Bullies on the playground and shop-floor and in the boardroom are aggressive, competitive, and impulsive. They too aren’t too good at being assertive. They don’t rely or charm, offer persuasive arguments, or even know persuasive selling techniques. Bullies are aggressive, the bullied are passive; neither seem very assertive.

Most everyone agrees on three issues: First, bullying is a serious problem that blights people’s lives and affects workplace efficiency. Second, it is a problem with multiple causes, likely due to various factors happening at the same time. Third, there are things we can do to prevent it.

Dealing with bullies

Here are some simple tips in how to react when a bully confronts you at work or otherwise:

  • Know yourself and the situations and behaviors that trigger the bullying. Don’t provoke them, but be prepared to stand your ground when necessary.
  • Beware of competing with a bully. Don’t try to undermine their authority or to unseat him or her—unless you don’t care about maintaining your relationship. If you expect to gain this person’s respect by being more powerful than he or she is, think again.
  • Know the precise parameters of your job and/or your role so that you do not overstep the boundaries. You need to know your orders and then to carry them out, no more, no less.
  • Be strong and maintain your self-esteem. It is all too easy for a bully to push people around and overwhelm them. Get friends to support you. Rely on close social support.
  • To resolve conflicts that crop up in your personal life do not insist that he or she always do it your way or admit guilt or error. Many bullies cannot tolerate losing, so don’t seek all-or-nothing/I’m right-you’re-wrong solutions. Work toward compromises.
  • Appeal to reason, more than feelings. Make your point based on logic and paint a very reasonable case; with a show of emotion, you’ll be up against a brick wall.
  • Accept that the bully may have a temper and avoid pushing the predictable buttons. Don’t fight back and don’t blow off your steam in his or her face. Back off and let the anger wind down.
  • Build, nurture, and maintain your (true) reputation as a good performer with those in authority.
  • Keep records of everything and put it all in writing. This is very important for any future enquiries. Record what happened, where, when, who else was present, and how you reacted.
  • Finally, move on remembering the lesson for yourself and others.


Adrian Furnham was educated at LSE where he obtained a distinction in an MSc Econ., and at Oxford University where he completed a doctorate (D.Phil). He has subsequently earned a D.Sc and D.Litt degree. Previously a lecturer in Psychology at Pembroke College, Oxford, he has been Professor of Psychology at University College London since 1992. He has written over 1,000 scientific papers and 80 books. His latest book is Backstabbers and Bullies: How to Cope with the Dark Side of People at Work.

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