The indicators of workplace bullying are often obvious — anger, hostility, burdensome assignments, shouting, abusive language, or violence. But much bullying is covert. It can be so subtly ambiguous that bystanders disagree about whether it's actually bullying. But in every sense that matters, covert bullying is costly and destructive.
Because covert bullying can persist undetected, it can be more costly and more destructive than overt bullying. That's why recognizing covert bullying is important, whether you're a target or less directly involved.
Yet, under the veneer of civility, graciousness, and good nature, the tactics of the covert bully are at least as effective as the tactics of overt bullies. Here are some indicators of covert bullying.
- Your feelings
- Targets of covert bullies sometimes deny that they're being bullied, even though they feel bullied. Many believe, incorrectly, that all bullying must be blatantly offensive, abusive, and hostile. If you feel bullied, there's a strong chance that you're being bullied, no matter how "nice" the bully is.
- The use of privacy
- Since covert bullies want to maintain an image of innocence, they avoid any behavior that threatens that image. When executing bullying tactics, if the behavior is overtly bullying in nature, the covert bully avoids witnesses.
- Since the primary goal of bullies is the exercise of power, bullies seek to coerce others to carry out tasks against their wishes. The overt bully uses force or threats to carry out the coercion, but the covert bully favors subtle manipulation, deceit, and trickery. Consequently, the target might actually experience a desire to please the covert bully. Only after time passes, and new information reaches the target, is the spell broken, if ever.
- Because Targets of covert bullies
sometimes deny that they're
being bullied, even though
they feel bulliedthe bullying is covert, opinions differ about whether it's even happening. Some observers are certain, one way or the other. Some are uncertain. Some actively refuse to have an opinion, often as a means of denying their feelings of confusion. Even targets can be unsure, casting about for alternate explanations for their feelings of being abused.
- The roller coaster
- Occasionally, observers or targets begin to sense that bullying is happening — or perhaps they conclude it with certainty. Sensing these changes, covert bullies then take steps to repair relationships using a variety of tactics. They grant favors, do favors unbidden, or voluntarily step forward to heroically assume undesirable responsibilities. This alternation of abuse and graciousness disrupts coalitions, confounds the opposition, and confuses targets.
If a covert bully has been in place for a while, it's likely that those in positions to address the problem already know about it. If that's so, the real problem is that those responsible for dealing with the bully have failed to do so. Appealing to them is unlikely to work. Look higher — or move on. Top Next Issue
Is a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!
For more about covert bullying, see "Strategies of Verbal Abusers," Point Lookout for August 1, 2018.
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Hurtful Clichés: I
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- Looking the Other Way
- Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't
intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking
the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
- See No Bully, Hear No Bully
- Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection
of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
- Anticipatory Disappointment at Work
- Disappointment is usually unpleasant, and sometimes benign. But when it occurs before we have evidence
of bad news — when it is anticipatory — disappointment can be unnecessary and expensive.
What is anticipatory disappointment? What are the risks?
- Double Binds at Work
- At work, a double bind arises when someone in authority makes contradictory demands of a subordinate,
who has no alternative but to choose among options that all lead to unwelcome results. Double binds
are far more common than most of us realize.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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