Aggression & Blame in Organizations — When Bullying Isn’t Just for Kids

I’ve experienced bullying in settings you might not believe.

A more nuanced behavior than most of us think, there are unrecognized forms of bullying being carried out by adults.

Many of us, think of bullying as something kids do. Though in the last four years that belief isn’t quite as common.

Where Does Adult Bullying Happen?

I’ve experienced bullying in settings you might not believe.

One big problem is that the person engaging in adult bullying often isn’t aware that they are. And those observing the behaviors might be uncomfortable with it, thinking the person is having a bad day, but probably wouldn’t define it as bullying if that person is their friend. Yes, our friends can be bullies at times.

This gets murky for adults when the “bully” is not calling someone names in the schoolyard, or “accidentally” bumping into others in an aggressive way.

Adult bullying can be subtle and can fall anywhere on the bullying continuum. At one end of the continuum, is the milder behavior that likely makes us cringe a little, but that we wouldn’t call bullying.

And even at the other end of the continuum adults who witness clearly inappropriate behavior may deny that it is bullying.

But bullying is bullying — the characteristics are the same, it’s simply the degree that varies.

Denying it or letting it slide because we like that person is not doing anyone any favors. We can certainly forgive them but if we care about them we will love them enough to give them honest feedback about their bullying behavior. Pull them aside later and gently share your experience. When you do that you are being helpful. If it was an unusual transgression that person will likely be grateful that you told them as it will increase their self-awareness in a way that will serve them in future situations.

Defining Adult Bullying Behavior

Here are some examples:

  • Blaming
  • Shaming
  • Guilt-tripping
  • Finger-pointing
  • Name-calling
  • Pushiness
  • Aggression
  • Coercion
  • Intimidation
  • Threats

Bullying in a Group

One type of bullying I’ve experienced as an adult happened in a group setting. I witnessed an adult temper tantrum in a business meeting where the bully got rather loud and aggressive, engaged in finger-pointing, blaming the facilitator for not doing a good job managing the time, and essentially imposed a hissy fit on the entire group because there wasn’t enough time for what he thought his agenda item needed.

On the milder end of the continuum, bullying shows up as dominance or a carefully stated guilt-trip. I was in a committee meeting once where one participant stepped up right at the start with their own agenda item, being pushy about an upcoming event in which they thought the group should participate. This person plowed forward not asking if there was interest or for input from others. He pulled out a pad of paper to start a list of all the things that he thought needed to be done, and asked who wanted to do what? He immediately followed that request with “And if you don’t want to do anything I’ll just put a big X next to your name!”

That pronouncement was surprising and offensive. At the moment I experienced it as aggressive dominance and a guilt-trip. Later that day after reflecting on the interaction I concluded that the best definition of what happened was bullying.

Others in that meeting had known this person for a long time and I think that’s one of the reasons they let it slide. The committee’s facilitator sat quietly and did nothing. I was taken aback by the behavior and it impacted my future participation in that committee. I was fairly new to that committee and it was clear that others didn’t have a problem with the behavior. I now regret it, but I didn’t take the time to address it with that person. In the heat of the moment, this kind of behavior can take us by surprise. When it happened I knew I felt annoyed and I’m pretty sure I muttered a sarcastic remark under my breath, but I wasn’t fully aware of what had happened until later. I could have talked to him at another time when we were both calm and I had more clarity. I regret that I didn’t.

Bullying by a Boss

Most of us have had a “bad” boss at one time or another. Some of us have had more bad ones than good ones.

I’m not sure who originally said it but the word on the street is that,

“You don’t quit your job — you quit your boss.”

Can you relate?
There may be no truer statement ever made about work. Sadly, bully bosses are quite common.
The majority of bully supervisors are men, but they certainly are not confined to the male gender. I once had a female supervisor from hell.

Anti-bullying programs have been trending for a number of years. That’s a good thing …except that all of them are designed for kids.

There’s an illusion that adults don’t engage in bullying. As a society, we acknowledge bad behavior by adults but we often don’t categorize it as bullying, but to refer to it in legal terms. We talk about assault or use terms like domestic violence or verbal abuse.

On a rare occasion, we might use the term bully to refer to an annoying drunk, an abusive parent, or even the President of the United States.

Some form of bullying happens to everyone, in every line of work.

As a society, we are in major denial about the level of emotional abuse that is perpetrated on the average employee and in all types of organizations toward staff and volunteers.

Because of that denial, the issue is not addressed. We think of a bully as a big goofy kid in the schoolyard picking on the shy boy. Or the popular girl making fun of a classmate who she considers to be overweight.

But it happens to too many adults in both the workplace and the nonprofits in which they are involved.

We’re too afraid to confront our sadistic supervisor — to let them know that we go home every Friday almost in tears after getting end-of-the-week “feedback” from them. (my true story from 1992)

In my one and only corporate position, I had three bosses. One was my real supervisor. Another was the owner who would occasionally ask something of me but mostly let me do my job. And the third was related to the owner. She was a troubled person and apparently bullied various employees intermittently. And it was common knowledge that she bullied every new employee. Common knowledge except to the new hire.

Of course, it was subtle at first, and being new I didn’t speak up. I didn’t tell my supervisor. But it didn’t take long for it to ramp up.

I ended up in the HR Director’s office in tears and left for the day with the full blessing of those who knew what had happened.

Talking to my supervisor the next day he informed me of her habit then said “I didn’t think she’d do it this time.” Thanks for the warning.

It was pretty awful and there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. Especially the micro-aggressions. She always seemed to be looking for a “gotcha” moment which had me walking on eggshells.

I’ve made a few statements about wishing I had talked to the person who had exhibited bullying behavior but there are many situations where it’s not safe to speak up and the person being bullied has limited options.

Sadly that’s the reality too often. We live in a society that doesn’t take this issue seriously. The result is that we find bullies in small settings, and we end up with bullies in high offices that “no one can do anything about.”

A Bully? Who Me?

We’ve all had mean bosses, but are we excellent communicators who express ourselves clearly and with compassion? Do we take full responsibility for ourselves and treat others well? Do we express our anger appropriately? Are we skilled at managing our emotions? When we do something wrong or clearly violate someone, do we offer an apology?

Not quite.

Most organizations fall short when it comes to addressing low-level inappropriate behavior. When it seems mild it’s often considered insignificant — but it isn’t.

It often also depends on who is engaging in inappropriate behavior. If it’s the top salesperson, they will likely get away with it. If it’s a man it will be overlooked more than if it’s a woman.

The small offenses might not seem like a big deal, but if they aren’t addressed, it’s too easy for the behaviors to become chronic or to escalate. If that happens you can find yourself in a mess of a conflict. Conflict resolution is a related topic. When conflicts arise at work or at home, bullying behavior may or may not be a precipitating factor. But many of the same skills that help us manage ourselves so we don’t slip into bullying behavior, can also help us handle conflicts or even avoid them. (not by sweeping them under the rug, but by communicating cleanly and directly — being assertive but also being a good listener and addressing the small disagreements before they grow into full-blown conflicts).

Learn more about the fun world of Conflict Resolution.

Increasing Self-Awareness

We all support “anti-bullying” programs, but do we hold up the mirror to our own behavior?

Do we keep our cool when others act like a**holes? Or do we blurt an aggressive verbal come-back and put them in their place? (bullies don’t always “start it”)

There are many things happening in the world today that might enrage us. But how do we respond? What do we do with our anger?

Do we act impulsively? Are we *certain* that we are right, and feel justified in aggressively setting someone straight? Do we ever slip into bullying behavior….even when we don’t mean to?

Is it possible that we have bullied a co-worker, a friend, or our partner? (without knowing it?)

The Subtleties of “Influence”

Are you good at talking your friends into going to the movie you want to see? Are you the first to suggest a restaurant and your partner always agrees? Is that bullying? Not necessarily. But worth exploring.

Do you almost always get your way? Even if you don’t get pushy? Is it simply that you know what you want and you assertively put that out and your friends go along?

Being “persuasive” is not (necessarily) bullying…but there can be a fine line between being persuasive and being a bully. Remember the continuum I mentioned? Most of us have probably bullied to some degree more once in our lives.

If you have a “strong personality” and tend to lead the way with your friends and family, you may want to reflect on this and pay attention the next time decisions are being made between you and your partner or within a group. Increase your self-awareness by observing the dynamics of your relationships.

And if you are truly courageous you’ll ask for feedback from those you spend time with or who are close to you. Ask them if it’s their experience that you mostly get your way? If they say yes, ask them how they feel about that? Maybe they are fine with it and don’t want the burden of making decisions. That’s cool…and that’s even cooler if that’s out in the open and a mutual agreement. And of course, you can ask if they’d like you to occasionally ask for their preference? (okay, maybe that’s expecting too much of you!)

Pull Out Your “Bully Meter” — Was I a Bully?

Okay, I’ll go first. A relationship I was in for a number of years came to an end. After it was over I got wind that a friend of my ex had once referred to me in a derogatory way — a term that described me as a bullying type.

My ex told me this not long after we broke up. That mutual friend came up with the not-so-nice nickname for me during the time when my ex was venting about me.

I was shocked and quite upset to hear this. I didn’t believe that I had bullied my ex, but after hearing that description of me, I spent time reflecting deeply on my behavior.

I probably can’t claim that I never showed up on the bully continuum but what finally became clear as I reviewed past interactions with my ex, was that I almost always got my way. That was an aha” moment, to say the least.

I realized that when we were choosing a movie or deciding where to go to eat, that 90% of the time we went to the place I suggested. But what I also realized was that my partner almost never made a suggestion, never expressed a preference, and did not make a counter-offer to my suggestion.

So while I almost always got my way…my memory is that my partner appeared to be fine with what I suggested. It wasn’t that I won an argument. We didn’t each make suggestions, with me then insisting on mine. That would have been bullying. But that’s not how it went down.

Am I remembering it accurately? Who knows? Was a preference stated and I didn’t hear it or take it seriously and then easily got my way? I don’t want to think so but I can’t say for sure.

My memory is that I simply stated what I preferred, and my partner didn’t object.

I was assertive (not aggressive). And my partner was passive.
I’m sure I could have been more considerate. I’m sure I could have listened more closely, and been more sensitive.

If there was discomfort or underlying resentment…it was never expressed to me. Obviously, it was there, showed up during the breakup, and was expressed to another friend.

I did use that information, not only for the purpose of beating myself up but also as a “Note to self: be more considerate and spend more time asking others what they want.”

When It’s NOT Bullying…But Some May Perceive It That Way

Here’s another example of perceived bullying. This time I was an objective observer.

I watched a Facebook Live broadcast of a person who offered a weekly analysis of national events. She is someone who has an intense personality and doesn’t mince words. And sometimes reminds her 60,000 viewers about her guidelines for online engagement.

I watched one day when after there had been some questionable behavior on the feed, she was setting limits and laying down the rules to her viewers. She got quite animated — it was dramatic and intense…but not out of character for her. She often gets revved up and anyone following her would already know that.

The next day some of her followers accused her of bullying.

I’m sensitive and fairly tuned in to bullying— even at low levels, but this was not bullying. It was simply a strong emotional expression.

It wasn’t bullying because she wasn’t exerting power-over anyone or being abusive.

  • She didn’t point the finger at a specific person with an accusation.
  • She didn’t shame or blame anyone or the group in general.
  • She didn’t engage in name-calling or do anything else on the list of bullying behaviors.
  • She was simply being straightforward, using strong language, and a bit of volume.
  • She was simply setting limits — maintaining her boundaries.

This woman can get rather dramatic, and in my mind, almost annoying…but she’s not a bully.

One may find her message upsetting or difficult to listen to but it’s important to understand the difference between a strong animated message and bullying behavior.

How Can We Become Bully-Proof?

How to bully-proof? I’m talking about ourselves because we are the only ones we can control. The best approach is to work on self-awareness as explained above. If you find yourself edging along on the bullying continuum farther than you would like, the most important ingredient you need to reverse that is willingness. And the second most important ingredient is honesty. (mostly with yourself). Throw in a dash of humility and you will be well on your way to being bullyless. (yeah, I just made up that word)

Wondering how to protect yourself from the bullying of others? To be more bully-proof from others see my essay about Strengthening Personal Boundaries. But guess what? Working on your boundaries will also help you be less of a bully. That’s because violating others (even in the slightest way) is a boundary issue. Another key skill that when developed will keep you from crossing into bullying behavior is Assertiveness. Yes, when you learn to be assertive you won’t need to be aggressive. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, hopefully, it will once you read this.

Because conflict and anger are also part of the mix you’ll also want to read my essay on Conflict Resolution. It’s an in-depth treatise on the topic that explains the ins and out and provides guidelines for resolving conflicts. It includes an entire section on the fun topic of anger! You can also read my piece on Conscious Anger.

Taking Full Responsibility for Our Emotions

When we get better at identifying our feelings, we become more self-aware. And when we are more self-aware we can more easily take responsibility for our emotions, and therefore, our behavior.

This kind of “adulting” makes us less prone to bullying behavior. It also increases our confidence.

When we learn Emotional Self-Management we recognize and manage our triggers. We no longer judge our anger or run from it — we no longer push it down pretending it’s not there. We learn to handle it appropriately and without getting aggressive and dumping on others (or we catch ourselves when we do, then stop, apologize, and start over).

Overall we communicate clearly and directly and with compassion. Not all the time but as we practice we get better at it.

Taking Responsibility on Either Side of an Emotional Encounter

That means:

  • No playing the victim
  • No blaming someone else
  • No name-calling
  • No emotional dumping
  • No inappropriate behavior
  • No aggression
  • No hostile body language

In other words…

No bullying.

Oh, and if you catch yourself being a bully…even if only slightly, make an apology. A real apology.

Learn Why You Need the Rare Skill of an Authentic Apology.

Have you ever met an assertive, bully-free person with good boundaries? Someone who manages their emotional triggers and communicates calmly and directly? They are pretty cool people, but there aren’t too many of them.

If you are teachable and read the articles linked in this piece and you can become one of them.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store