Are you a workplace bully? 9 questions that will help you find out

Corporations can’t afford to waste money on leaders who do more damage than they can ever make up for in results. So, if your answers to any of these questions indicate that you have tendency to be the bully, it’s time for some personal growth. Your job probably depends on it.

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Would you know it if you were the bully?

Being the boss can be lonely. You can’t be everyone’s friend. You’re ‘the man.’

If you’re lucky, you have a team you trust and the confidence to get out of their way. More likely? You sometimes find yourself playing the heavy.

Do you ever wonder, though, if your team hates you? Do you find yourself rationalizing that thought with, “I’m a tough boss! I get things done!”

There is a thread-thin line between toxic and tough. But, when it comes to results, these two management styles couldn't be further apart.  

A tough, fair boss inspires devotion from a team willing to accomplish the impossible.

But when the boss is a bully, “outcomes range from mutiny and death to an erosion of trust, increased turnover, domestic violence, absenteeism, and increased alcohol and drug use,” says Teresa Daniel, Dean and Professor of Human Resource Leadership Programs at Sullivan University.

Which kind of boss you are?

“Most bullies don’t recognize that they are bullies, “says Patricia Barnes, author of Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace (Amazon Digital Services, LLC). “They are shocked when they are told they are bullies.”

Ask yourself the following questions to find out if you are one of them.

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Does your boss think you are awesome?

Don’t rely too heavily on accolades from above as a measure of your greatness as a boss. Higher-ups often pile raises, promotions, and accolades on a toxic boss because they are fooled by the bully’s short-term results. “Their political savvy, coupled with their ability to accomplish near-impossible missions, causes superiors to view [bullies] as ‘great guys’ with extraordinary abilities to get things done,” explains Daniel.  

But when the negative after-effects bring lawsuits, bad press, staff exodus, medical claims, and other expensive problems, it will be your fault. You will take the fall – no matter how much they encouraged your tactics.

The high-cost of a toxic boss is well known. The damage can last years, both within the culture of the workplace and in the minds of the bully’s victims. And the financial cost of all this damage is substantial. Studies have estimated that $250 million annually is spent helping American workers recover – in health care, litigation, employee turnover, and retraining – from this form of assault.

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Do you share credit for a job well done?

Toxic bosses are often spotted by experts, in the wild, for the way they dole out credit when a project is completed, or something goes well. “A bully frequently takes credit for the work of others,” explains Daniel. This strategy is another reason the bully’s boss, fooled by false claims, adores him. But it is a tactic that breeds massive unrest from the team that did the work.

A tough boss, the one with the devoted staff, “gives credit and recognition to others,” says Daniels. “And celebrates and rewards the successful efforts of subordinates.”

The difference here is motive. If your object is to get the job done, you will recognize the efforts of those who did the work. That’s what will get the job done next time, too. If your motive is a promotion for you, you will use the people who did the work to get the reward you want.

In the long run, though, you will not impress your boss by selfishly undermining the company. This is a short-term strategy that could easily backfire.

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I don’t really care, do you?

If you are saying, “Who cares if I’m a bully, I get the job done!” You are well on your way to qualifying as a toxic boss.

Unfortunately, this does not make you rare. According to Daniels, “about 27% of adult Americans reported that they have experienced bullying at work defined as repeated abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage, or work abuse.”

Your absence of concern comes not from a desire to get the job done but from the feeling of power you get from bullying.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, victims of bullying are under enormous, unrelenting stress that affects their ability to do any job. Bullied employees suffer from hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, IBD, colitis, auto-immune disorders, diabetes, and skin disorders.

Still don’t care? You might be a narcissist or psychopath. According to a study done by the Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester in the UK, psychopathy and narcissism both lead to bullying. Narcissists will do anything to maintain their belief in their own superiority over others, which can mean exaggerating their personal achievements, criticizing others, and taking credit for others’ work. Psychopaths get satisfaction from humiliating and hurting others.

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Has anyone ever called you a bully?

“If one person says you are a bully, you have a problem,” says Barnes. “But if two people complain, it’s a serious problem.”

The way the people who work for you perceive you is an important measure of how you are doing as a boss. Do you know what they think? Have you asked?

“People who work for tough bosses characterize them as ‘tough but fair’ — and feel a great deal of loyalty and respect for them,” says Daniels. So, if someone calls you a bully, do some self-examination. “Toxic corporate types typically single out a single employee to torment, humiliate, or intimidate for a period of time—until they move on to their next target.”

Maybe you think you have a reason for picking on this person. But abuse is a poor management technique. At the minimum, it is a tactic that will come back to bite you. Worse, it could indicate a pattern of abuse. By the time this sort of problem ends up in court, it’s too late to undo the damage. Consider doing an employee survey and take an honest look at the results.

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What happens when someone else has a brilliant idea?

Here’s a good test of your own confidence as a leader. When someone comes to you with an idea, do you like it? Ever?

If you believe you are always right and your ideas are the best ones, you might be undermining your staff because you are threatened by them. That’s not good.  Daniels has a checklist of toxic boss behaviors. “Always think you are right and your ideas are the best ones,” is number four on that list.

You might want to think about why you are threatened by someone else’s ideas. If it is because they are more experienced, and you aren’t yet confident in your role in the command structure, consider seeking some management training. The company, the project you are working on, and your clients, all want to benefit from ideas, wherever they come from.

If you are unwilling to consider the possibility that other people have valuable ideas, you might have a larger problem than a lack of confidence.  

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The boss asks you for the impossible, what do you?

If your boss, or a client, asks for a difficult project in impossible timing, what is your first response? If you say, ‘Yes!’ and promise the impossible, damn the human cost, you are not a ‘tough but fair’ boss. Did you consider, first, what that would do to your team’s workload or family life? Did you care?

Saying yes to crazy demands is symptom of a toxic boss. It shows you care more about how you look to the client or boss than the well-being of the people you work with every day. This is a short-term decision that benefits only you, with no concern for how detrimental it will be for the organization or the people in it in the long term.

A reasonable, fair, tough leader would assess the resources available before committing to meeting a difficult goal. He would ask if he – and his team – have the funding, resources, information, and personnel the task will require before making a commitment.

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How do you react when there is a screw up?

Something goes wrong. A client is angry. A deadline gets missed. What’s your go-to response?

Do you find someone to blame? Is there a person you want to berate? Do you engage in hostile outbursts? Regrettable tantrums? That’s pretty toxic, actually.

A tough leader knows that something is bound to go wrong at some point, even when everyone is doing their best. Mistakes happen. He accepts his role in the disaster and looks for a solution. He might even see mistakes as an opportunity to learn. Mistakes aregood teachers.

A toxic leader yells at people, accepts no personal responsibility for mistakes, allows himself to engage in angry tirades, humiliates people, threatens staff, and is not concerned about the morale of the people who work for him.

If screaming and yelling is your reaction, you need to enroll in management training ASAP. You are headed towards disaster.

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How well do you know your staff?

How many times, lately, has someone on your staff asked your advice, told you their problems, or requested your help working through a work problem?

If the answer is ‘never,’ you should wonder why that is. Are you approachable? Or do you create a climate of fear and anxiety. Are people afraid to ask your help with a work problem because they fear you will blame them?

If your answer is, “Sure, there one person who confides in me.” And that’s the same person you lunch with and offer plumb projects to, you might be playing favorites.

Yep. Toxic.

“If your boss were to conduct a confidential 360-degree survey of your department,” asks Barnes. “How would your subordinates describe your management skills?” (Everyone. Not just your teacher’s pet.)

If you don’t know the answer to that last question, it is time to reach out to staff and find out. Maybe do a survey of your own.

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How are your mentoring skills?

If you laughed at this one and thought, “Mentoring is for wimps!” you might want to enroll in some management training.

Leaders, tough bosses, whatever you want to call the people who aren’t bullies – those who lead successful teams to accomplish impossible tasks – all spend a lot of time and energy mentoring and training their staff. They create mentoring opportunities for the skilled members of their staff. They set the noobs up with a coach.

Mentoring and teaching is how you build a skilled workforce and harness the talent your team has already developed.

If you are not trying to build a skilled workforce, what are you trying to do?

“Abusive leaders drive away talent,” explains Daniels. This makes this sort of boss too expensive to keep around. You may believe you are delivering results. But, without a team behind you, those results will be short lived. The long-terms costs of bullying your staff will far outweigh the benefits.