Are we confusing aggressive behaviour with bullying?

Bullying seems to be this week’s hot issue, after claims that Gordon Brown bullied his staff were splashed all over the newspapers. Some newspapers have followed the story up with articles and features on workplace bullying, an issue that is discussed far more often now than it was a decade ago. Does this mean that bullying is getting worse or that there is more of it now, or does it just mean that we’re more sensitive to it these days?

Bullying at work is serious and it is extremely nasty for anyone who has been on the receiving end of it. However, we are in danger of de-valuing the term if we apply it to all forms of unpleasant behaviour at work.

There will always be a certain amount of aggressive behaviour even in the most benign working environments. Conflict is endemic in the workplace. Unless we are lucky enough to have inherited wealth or income from rents and investments, work is the only way of getting what we need to survive and maintain a reasonable degree of comfort. Most of us, even if we earn reasonably high salaries, are only a few pay packets away from penury. There is, therefore, a lot at stake for us when we go into work each day. In one way or another, we try to get as much money as we can for as little pain as possible. Each of us is pursuing his or her own interests. Often these are similar to the interests of our colleagues but sometimes they are not. When these competing interests collide, as they inevitably will, the result is conflict. This can lead to fear, frustration, confusion, anger and fatigue. Perhaps we should be surprised not that there is so much aggression in the workplace but that there is so little.

On top of this, leaders have added pressure. Whether they are heading armies, companies, governments or charities, the role of leaders is to guide us when we are in unfamiliar territory. That’s why we call them leaders. Political, social, economic and technical environments are changing all the time. To be a leader is to be constantly dealing with unfamiliar and uncertain situations.  When you are at the top, there is no-one else to refer to; you are it. Sounding authoritative and confident is much easier when you are is a supporting role, based on the solid ground of your technical competence. Leaders, though, spend much of their time dealing with uncertainty and making decisions in areas where they have little understanding of the technical detail. To use the current psycho-jargon, leaders spend a lot of time out of their comfort-zones. The ability to sit with this discomfort is key to a leader’s ability to cope.

It is not unusual to see chief executives retreat back into their technical comfort zones when things get difficult. Those who have come up through the finance function are often the worst, obsessively diving into detailed numbers so they can hide from the ambiguous and uncertain challenges of business strategy. Gordon Brown displays similar behaviour. Since he became Prime Minister the only time he has looked relaxed and confident was during the financial crisis. He was on solid ground and dealing with things he knew about.

But, like Gordon Brown, most leaders have to spend most of their time outside their comfort-zones. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they will occasionally lose their tempers. Some people are better at managing their discomfort than others. Often, leaders who blow off regularly are those for whom the uncertainty and insecurity just gets too much.

Bad tempered and aggressive behaviour, then, is a normal aspect of any workplace. To label all of it as bullying is to miss the essence of what makes bullying so nasty. A boss who rants and raves because he or she is frustrated or sacred is quite different to one who uses aggression as a management tool. It might sometimes feel the same when you are on the recieving end but there is a crucial difference between bullying and general aggressive behaviour. As Deborah Orr succinctly put it yesterday, bullying is personal:

It is not pleasant to work for a boss of this kind, that’s for certain. It’s ­exhausting and demoralising, having to walk around on eggshells, in fear of the next loss of control. But while ­victims might feel bullied, that is not the case. Bullying is personal. Exposure to a powerful man with a short fuse is circumstantial.

If your boss sounds off at everyone, regardless of position in the hierarchy, he is just a rather unpleasant man who can’t control his temper. If he is obsequious to senior executives but overbearing to more junior staff, then you are looking at someone who uses agression and intimidation as a control strategy. If your boss targets certain people for especially severe browbeatings, then you have a 24-carat bully in your workplace.

Of course, not all bullies use overtly aggressive behaviour. It’s only the relatively stupid ones who do. Aggression, even when it is targeted, is much easier to deal with than some of the less overt forms of bullying. A shouty sweary bully is obvious; you can see him coming and so can everyone else. You’ll have plenty of backup and evidence when you want to bring him down. Much more difficult to deal with are the silent bullies. These people systematically exploit conflict and people’s weaknesses. We all know the types. The boss who gives you an impossible project knowing it will fail and then casually mentions your failure in every meeting, the colleague who whispers about you by the water cooler or in the neighbouring coffee shops and the project manager who cuts across you and subtly ridicules your contributions in meetings. This type of bullying is insidious. The effects creep up on you. Colleagues pick up on the hidden message that you are out of favour and start to avoid you. Suddenly, people stop asking you to work on their projects and you don’t get invited out to luch any more. Often, the first concrete evidence you have is when your boss starts muttering about poor performance and you don’t get a pay rise. This sort of attack is like having a slowly dripping water leak in your house. By the time you find out what is happening the damage is beyond repair. I’d sooner face the ranting and swearing buffoon any day. At least you can defend yourself when you are being knifed in the front.

Bullying and agressive behaviour are not the same thing. People lose their tempers at work for all sorts of reasons. It does not necessarily mean that they are doing it to bully people. The cleverer bullies don’t use aggression at all. Their strategies are more calculated, their tactics are more spiteful and they keep their tracks well covered.

Conflating bullying with aggressive behaviour suits some people well. For the serial grievance-raisers, the heightened awareness of workplace bullying gives them an ideal stick with which to beat relatively unsophisticated bosses who shout a bit too much. In many organisations, accusations of bullying are almost as effective as claims of racial or religious discrimination if your aim is to throw the HR department into a state of panic. But to over-react to such claims, as too many HR functions do, is to de-value bullying as a term to describe a particularly toxic form of behaviour. If every shouty-sweary manager is a bully, it takes the focus off the really nasty bullies who make people’s lives such a misery.

Over the next couple of years we will probably see a lot more aggressive behaviour in organisations. Uncertain times and unfamiliar challenges make insecure leaders feel even more scared. The worst recession in living memory continues to take its toll on the private sector and the public sector is now starting to feel the pain too. It is fifteen years since the last recession. There is a whole generation of executives who have only known good times. They either don’t remember the last recession or were too junior to be responsible for managing its consequences. Many managers have no experience of trying to deliver the same services with rapidly decreasing budgets, of having to tell people, for the third year running, that there will be no pay rise and of having to make large numbers of people redundant. Most of these executives will feel uncomfortable and threatened. For some of them, this will translate into aggressive behaviour. That doesn’t make them bullies.

A certain amount of aggression is inevitable in organisations. To label all of it as bullying reduces the potency of the term. Bullying should be a charge reserved for those who, as a control strategy, deliberately undermine, demean and intimidate their staff. Most of these bullies don’t shout or throw staplers and mobile phones at people. The cleverest and most devious ones rarely even raise their voices.

There’s a discussion about bullying here on the Observer web-site. If you look closely, you might just see someone you know.

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5 Responses to Are we confusing aggressive behaviour with bullying?

  1. Jez says:

    Over the years I’ve had to adjudicate in a number of internal grievances (I’m not an HR professional) in which bullying has been cited. It’s usually been combined with allegations of victimisation, harassment and often racism and sexism – all of which I would deal with severely if they had occurred. However in each case that I’ve seen, there hasn’t even been aggressive behaviour on the part of managers, let alone bullying – it’s been an inability of under-performing staff to cope with straightforward feedback on their performance. The fact that someone cries whilst being told that their performance is lacking, does not amount to bullying – yet time and time again I’ve seen that being used as “evidence” that bullying has occurred.

    Bullying, victimisation, harassment, racism and sexism are terms that should never be used lightly – but they are unfortunately often the first resort of the incompetent. Let’s not allow people to resort to such accusations as a means of abdicating responsibility for their own shortcomings.

  2. David Yamada says:

    I have been researching and writing about workplace bullying and the law for the past decade, and I stick to the distinction that malice — which I define as the desire to cause harm or distress — is the dividing line between bullying and less severe form of mistreatment.

    I agree that the individual who operates in consistently aggressive mode is not necessarily a 24/7 “bully.” However, as the allegations concerning Gordon Brown suggest, such individuals may be more prone to crossing that line at times, getting in that targeted dig when their dispositions get the better of them.

    Jez’s comments about underperforming employees crying “bully” are why the anti-bullying legislation I’ve drafted provides employers a defense for bonafide employment decisions and evaluations. It’s a valid concern.

    But let’s keep our eyes on the bigger picture: Outstanding and average performers are among those who are subjected to the worst bullying imaginable. This is not a form of mistreatment that congregates around marginal employees.

    David Yamada
    Professor of Law and Director, New Workplace Institute, Suffolk University Law School
    Minding the Workplace blog at:

  3. TGS says:

    That was really interesting, thanks.

    The bit about leaders being outside their comfort zones being prone to aggression was especially interesting. To my mind where this is the case it shows a lack of training, self awareness and poor selection and monitoring by Boards and/or senior executives.

    You don’t mention the Peter Principle, sometimes people are just out of their depth. I suspect that this is the case with Gordon Brown so his anguish and anger is exacerbated because he coveted the job so long.

    The next question is, how do shareholders, boards and HR departments monitor and deal with the problem? There is no doubt that having a leader who is consistently getting angry is bad for motivation, even if they aren’t bullies, and therefore bad for the organisation? I realise it is hard because HR departments can be just as scared as the rest of the organisation.

    Finally, there is one simple management saying that I took away from the military and applied it throughout my career: praise in public, bollock in private. If you cant apply that you are a bad manger and if you do lose your temper in public, apologise.

  4. Brian says:

    Good points well made.

    I think some people shout “bully” now in the way they used to shout “witch”. If you don’t like someone it’s a powerful slur.

  5. Although, as Brian pointed out, crying “bully” may be false, but powerful accusation. But, ultimately, bullying is in the eye of beholder. Certainly, the victim may feel bullied regardless of the intent of the bully; but equally, onlookers may also feel that bullying has taken place.

    While not all aggressive behavior is necessarily bullying, much of it is; and just as bullying is inappropriate at work, so is aggressive behavior. We shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

    Bruce Hoag, PhD, CPsychol
    Work Psychologist

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