While the organizational costs of incivility and toxicity are well documented, bullying at work is still a problem. An estimated 48.6 million Americans, or about 30% of the workforce, are bullied at work. In India, that percentage is reported to be as high as 46% or even 55%. In Germany, it’s a lower but non-negligible 17%. Yet bullying often receives little attention or effective action.
To maximize workplace health and well-being, it’s critical to create workplaces where all employees — regardless of their position — are safe. Systemic, organizational-level approaches can help prevent the harms associated with different types of bullying.
The term workplace bullying describes a wide range of behaviors, and this complexity makes addressing it difficult and often ineffective. Here, we’ll discuss the different types of bullying, the myths that prevent leaders from addressing it, and how organizations can effectively intervene and create a safer workplace.
The Different Types of Bullying
To develop more comprehensive systems of bullying prevention and support employees’ psychological well-being, leaders first need to be aware of the different types of bullying and how they show up. We’ve identified 15 different features of bullying, based on standard typologies of aggression, data from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), and Ludmila’s 25+ years of research and practice focused on addressing workplace aggression, discrimination, and incivility to create healthy organizational cultures.
These 15 features can be mapped to some of the common archetypes of bullies. Take the “Screamer,” who is associated with yelling and fist-banging or the quieter but equally dangerous “Schemer” who uses Machiavellian plotting, gaslighting, and smear campaigns to strip others of resources or push them out.
The Schemer doesn’t necessarily have a position of legitimate power and can present as a smiling and eager-to-help colleague or even an innocent-looking intern. While hostile motivation and overt tactics align with the Screamer bully archetype and instrumental, indirect, and covert bullying is typical of the Schemer, a bully can have multiple motives and use multiple tactics — consciously or unconsciously.
Caroline mediated a situation that illustrates both conscious and unconscious dynamics. At the reception to celebrate Ewa’s* national-level achievement award, Harper, her coworker, spent most of the time talking about her own accomplishments, then took the stage to congratulate herself on mentoring Ewa and letting her take “ownership” of their collective work. But there had been no mentorship or collective work.
After overtly and directly putting Ewa down and (perhaps unconsciously) attempting to elevate herself, Harper didn’t stop. She “accidentally” removed Ewa from crucial information distribution lists — an act of indirect, covert sabotage.
In another example, Ludmila encountered a mixed-motive, mixed-tactic situation. Charles, a manager with a strong xenophobic sentiment, regularly berated Noor, a work visa holder, behind closed doors — an act of hostile and direct bullying. Motivated by a desire to take over the high-stakes, high-visibility projects Noor had built, Charles also engaged in indirect, covert bullying by falsifying performance records to make a case for her dismissal.
Workplace Bullying Myths
Common myths about bullying — for example, that it’s simply “holding people to high standards” or having a “competitive personality” — suggest that bullying does not harm and may even spur performance. However, bullying and the myths about it hinder outcomes.
A common assumption is that bullies are often star performers and that high performance justifies bad behavior. However, the actual star performers are more likely to be targets than bullies. Bullies are usually mediocre performers who may appear to be stars, while in fact they often take credit for the work of others. Moreover, bullies are not motivated by organizational goals.
They’re driven by self-interest, often at the expense of organizations. Research indicates that bullies often envy and covertly victimize organization-focused high performers — those who are particularly capable, caring, and conscientious. Not only are bullies not the stars, but one toxic employee negates the gains of the performance of two superstars and likely creates additional costs.
The “motivation” myth justifies bullying as “management” or “motivation,” helping low-performing individuals improve. Indeed, low performers are more likely to experience bullying than mediocre ones — but it does not help them improve. Rather, it can further hinder performance, creativity, collaboration, and delivering on business goals due to employee distress.
Research has thoroughly documented that bullying is detrimental to individuals’ productivity and organizational outcomes. Unfortunately, even when organizations attempt to address it, the interventions are rarely effective.