Are Aggressive Workplace Cultures Enabling Bullies?

      “Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.” Leonardo da Vinci

Much has been written (thankfully) about the pervasive increase of bullying in the workplace.  Not as much has been written, though, about the tacit, even welcome, atmosphere of aggression in many workplace cultures.
Throughout my years of consulting in organizational settings, I’ve been disturbed by the consistent reports from employees of workplace aggression that is rationalized, tolerated and condoned by management. 
There’s always been a fine line in defining the sometimes subtle distinctions between assertive and aggressive behaviors.  The differences are dependent upon idiosyncratic perceptions. Since we’ve now added bully behavior to the spectrum, the lines get even blurrier.
When I stand over your desk or point a finger at you and say, “No offense, but that’s not the way you do things around here,” chances are you’ll see me as an aggressor – maybe even a bully.
Those who describe themselves as non-assertive or at least, non-aggressive in the context of their workplace, similarly report that their cultures either excuse or ignore aggressive behaviors.  
Many workers are encouraged by management to adopt more aggressive tactics to get the job done more effectively.  Some employees believe that “something is wrong with me,” or “I won’t get promoted” unless they adopt the particular brand of aggression that’s the norm in their workplace. Self-blame is not uncommon when faced with choices that go against who we are and our own natural communication style.

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

The tenacious meme that “Nice (guys) finish last,” still rules most organizational mindsets.  A recent study done at Cornell showed that “people who are disagreeable earn more than people who are agreeable, and the gap is biggest among men who earn 18.3% on average more than those who are significantly more agreeable than average. The comparable figure for women is 5.47%.”

Authors of the study conceded that they found their findings puzzling. Given the reliance of organizations on teams, they write, “It would seem that people high in agreeableness would have at least a slight economic advantage. The professors concluded that the reasons for this gap can be attributed to the “powerful effect of masculine stereotypes on men’s earnings.”

In his excellent blog, Minding the Workplace, author David Yamada points out a criticism of efforts to establish anti-bully legislation from two corporate employment lawyers who claimed that “legal protections against workplace bullying are contrary to high performance expectations for workers and the value of healthy competition.”  They go on to say, tension created by competition fuels productivity at work and anti-bully measures would, “not only inhibit productivity and employers’ freedom to hire and fire at will employees but moreover, it would chill critical workplace communication.”

Despite the formidable political hurdles, there’s no question that crafting workable anti-bully legislation is complex and implementation will be even more challenging.  But the statements made by these attorneys reflect a deeper problem – the ingrained mindsets that drive the belief that cooperative and collaborative workplaces are not conducive to profit-making.

While many organizations and managers may talk team, they still are the enforcers (male and female) of the dying status quo that feeds on conformity.  The persistence in promoting and enabling aggression in the workplace (consciously or not) seems at odds with a larger culture that on the surface is growing weary of uncivil behavior.  In June, 2010, a poll done by Weber Shandwick showed that 65% of Americans thought incivility was a major problem that has worsened since the financial crisis surfaced in 2008.

Bully Behavior

Bullying takes many forms: belittling comments, persistent criticism, withholding of resources, email attacks, gossip and lying, ignoring or excluding others, yelling, insults and worse.

Although interpretations of other’s actions and intentions are highly subjective, no one wants to or should be the recipient of this kind of unacceptable behavior. Attempts to minimize a person’s reports of being bullied as “victimhood,” or self-indulgence are part of the problem – not the solution.

Dr. Sandy Hershcovis, author of a University of Manitoba study on workplace bullying states, “Bullying can be subtle and may include behaviors that do not appear obvious to others. For instance, how does an employee report to their boss that they have been excluded from lunch? Or that they are being ignored by a coworker? The insidious nature of these behaviors makes them difficult to deal with and sanction.”

The root drivers of both aggressive and bully behavior are similar:

  • Low self-esteem, often masked as self-confidence
  • Unresolved emotional issues, usually stemming from circumstances outside the workplace
  • Low self-awareness – failing to understand the impact of one’s own actions on others
  • Lack of ability to connect with one’s own natural empathic nature
  • Confusion about how to get needs met without denigrating others
  • Habituated and unregulated negative behaviors that have grown compulsive  with repetitive experience
  • (Deluded) sense of power


Why Do We Allow Bully Behavior?

While bully behavior may be “old news,” it isn’t going away. It’s on the increase in nearly every industry and institution.  Over 50% of the individuals and organizations we work with say they have a mild to serious bully problem in their workplaces.  A weak economy, poor job market, increased incivility in the media and politics to mention only a few stressors continue to provoke aggression in the culture at large.
Bully behavior is pandemic. Attempts to minimize, isolate and marginalize bully behaviors within organizational settings are largely ineffective. Organizations ignore this growing trend at their own expense.  Most organizations continue to perceive and define behavioral problems with a 19th lens.  The last two decades have produced ample neuroscience to demonstrate that bullied brains – the aggressors’ and the victims’ cannot function normally, let alone, optimally.
According to neuroscientists like Jean Decety of the University of Chicago, the brains of bullies may actually work differently, due to biological predisposition and early childhood experience.  That should not suggest that we treat bullies as sick or outcasts, regardless of their onerous behavior. They deserve our compassion and support to get the help they need so that their behavior does not harm the well-being of others and contribute to workplace toxicity.
 Bully behaviors continue in workplace settings for many reasons:

  • Aggression is systemic – it takes a bigger vision or an outside force or intervention to shake up the system to begin the process of change
  • Until recently, federal and state laws defining civil rights have not included or defined bullying as a distinct violation.  This makes the job of those in HR who want to take action, difficult or even impossible.  Those filing complaints have had to prove illegal discriminatory harassment, which occurs (according to the laws to date) in only 20% of bullying cases. This will change depending on the progress of the Healthy Workplace Bill.  However, legal limitations should not impede the efforts of HR and every level of management to set clear, definitive organizational guidelines that certain behaviors will not be tolerated.
  • Senior managers and human resources lack the knowledge, information and sometimes, the will, to understand the latest research and data on the psychological and sociological foundation of bullying and its implication for the workplace.
  • Some HR staff believe they lack the authority (and in many organizations they do) to intervene when they think bullying is taking place.
  • FEAR. Fear is at the core of what keeps most hostile environments and bully behaviors in place.  Fear from managers, department heads and co-workers who do not want to “rock the boat.” Fear from those who are conflict-averse. Fear from managers who justify the aggressive behavior of those who work for them because they are “star performers” or politically well-connected. Fear from those who are bullied and suffer quietly because they are afraid of losing their jobs.  And fear from the bullies – who are often unconscious of the inner struggles that drive them.

We will only be able to create “healthy workplaces” when we sweep the cobwebs off our eyes, recognize that courage is required to confront fear and understand that unless we transform the workplace culture – things are only going to get worse.
For those trying to cope with being bullied there are many good resources for you to contact:
The Workplace Bullying Institute                     
Bully Free at Work                                                
Minding the Workplace (blog)                        
Bullies Be Gone (blog)                                         
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Ronnie Ann says:

    I remember being interviewed by an EVP of a major bank right before I got my MBA. He found me “pleasantly aggressive”. I think that describes me pretty well in the workplace – at least when called upon to face up to roadblocks and bullying from the other side. But also just to get projects moving and meet tight deadlines, that often are so tight they almost invite dysfunction.
    While I hope I’ve never actually bullied anyone myself in the workplace, there have been times when I’ve had to deal with bullying types or people with their own agendas that had nothing to do with the work goals (parental/authority issues, egocentrism, need for attention, just plain meanness, etc.), and I can assure you I pushed back quite firmly and got projects moving along. Perhaps someone would call my behavior overly aggressive (especially the recipients), although I always tried to leave room for communication before, during and after.
    In a team, there is a leader whose job it is to make sure the entire group and organizational goals are cared for, and when someone is making it hard for everyone else, you take action. At first, hopefully by opening communication channels; but if that doesn’t work for whatever reasons, you look for ways to get things moving again – or at least help prevent them from making it harder for others. And for some, that can be viewed as aggressive behavior. So, as you suggest, sometimes it is in the eye of the beholder.
    On the other hand, an organization that condones or even promotes purposeful wielding of authority while minimizing the power of others isn’t doing anyone any good. This not only weakens progress toward their stated goals, but sets the stage for future push-back, booby traps, and both protective and offensive territoriality.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking article as always, Louise.

    • Ronnie,
      Thanks for your candid and insightful response. You are right – aggression is often a matter of perception. But what always surprises us in working with people in the workplace on these issues is how, when asked directly, people are very quick to define a whole range of behaviors as aggressive. While they seem to condone it on the surface, they privately resent being the subject of those behaviors, under any circumstance except real emergencies (and today’s workplace is sadly, a nearly 911 event all the time) That, of course, doesn’t mean they assertively confront the “aggressor” but it does mean that it gets stored in their emotional “bank account” and “held against” the other person for future interactions.
      The workplace is a pressure cooker and as you point as, many deadlines are so tight – they INVITE dysfunction. In today’s climate of 24/7 access and unprecedented work loads – organizations are setting up the conditions, over and over, for aggression to be triggered constantly.
      Appreciate your comment – love your blog!

  2. george says:

    Great article! As a public speaker and seminar leader, I’ve been leading a program for managers on Assertiveness for several years and have crossed paths with hundreds of managers representing a broad range of organizations and job descriptions. Without exaggeration, I would say that at least 2-3 people (men and women) in a class size of anywhere from 7 -20 participants have experienced bullying at work.
    When I ask participants, without any previous discussion, to list what they think are the differences between assertive and aggressive behavior, interesting and very clear distinctions are drawn between the two. Especially the consequences and impact these behaviors have on the person on the receiving end. No doubt, bullying is clearly aggressive…major league! However, when on the receiving end of aggressive behavior, the distinction between assertive and aggressive is not as blurred as one might think.
    Sure, for some people there is no distinction and it’s all aggressiveness, touted as the way to get things done. One way to think about the differences between the two is to consider what you do and how you go about doing it. Both assertive and aggressive behavior strive for results, getting things done…that is the what. The key distinction lies in the how you go about striving for results. In my opinion, if, in any way a person experiences being put-down, insulted, condescended or disrespected, etc…. it’s aggressive. And, those kinds of messages can be communicated not just in words,but more powerfully through non-verbal behavior. Bottom line, in the long term aggressive behavior is erosive, both in results and relationships.

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  4. hi louise,
    i am continually awed by your scholarly articles appearing week after week.
    Top Blog award; kudos for you
    ever think of putting your articles into a book
    would be a book that serves
    lastly, beautiful quote by leonardo!
    thank you,

  5. mike54martin says:

    Hi there. Great topic. And great comments too. Glad I found this blog. I am a freelance writer and workplace wellness consultant. I blog at and
    Mike Martin, author of “Change the Things You Can” (Dealing with Difficult People)

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