by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
Bullying is a common problem in society. Bullying has several forms and is manifest in workplaces, schools, clubs and even in family systems.
The topic of cyber-bullying tends to get a lot of attention but a more subtle and equally damaging form of bullying is often overlooked in this debate. This type of bullying known as passive aggressive bullying or the bullying by silence, marginalisation and omission, is a powerful and damaging type of bullying that requires a voice in the bullying debate.
When it comes to bullying we may get a vision of the aggressive, highly visible and audible type of personality berating a poor victim. Certainly this type of bully exists and can be identified quite readily as their actions are often overt and in your face for all to see.
However the more subtle form of bullying known as passive aggressive or silenced bullying is potentially a far more insidious and harder to detect form of mind violence against its victim. When something is done directly and overtly your brain gets a direct experience and therefore conclusion about what is intended and what is going on, and at least you have a confirmed reality about what is happening.
We all have an inbuilt fight or flight mechanism to deal with these forms of attack and even though they may still be intense and even traumatising there is no room for doubt as to what is going on. What is potentially worse is the subtle and silent undermining campaign, or worse still the character assassination and associated marginalisation, exclusion, and exclusion that sometimes gets conducted by a person or a group against a single person, group or collection of others.
Why do I say this may be worse than the overt and aggressive form of bullying? The main reason is you often lack clarity and a strong reality as to if and what is happening, and by whom.
When the brain lacks clarity of the certainty of experience it experiences stress and anxiety. The mind does not tend to allow a vacuum to exist and so will tend to make up a story to explain what it thinks is going on.
What is relevant here is that any unresolved states of mind and experience can bring on sleepless nights as the brain in its sleep journey can ruminate over unresolved issues and subsequently wake that person. Over time the person will tend to suffer self-doubt and will wonder if their experiences are all in their head and not actually happening at all.
In many cases the bully will want this to be the case as they are enacting a classic “cat and mouse” strategy whereby they are completely in control and in domination of the victim. Here, the victim may not even be aware, at least in the early stages that they are in a damaging cat and mouse game of the bully.
The second problem with silent bullying is that it is harder to identify, prove, get witnesses for, and so get support for. In many cases there will over time be small repetitive acts, or a gradual isolation of that person going on that only manifests as being apparent in the latter stages of the bullying strategy or process.
By then it is often too late and the person will find themselves disarmed, marginalised, isolated, slandered and excluded. Normally as a part of this outcome you will find that a negative belief system has successfully been inserted into the heads of potentially supportive other colleagues, friends or family, via whispering campaigns, gas lighting, and character assassination against the victim.
Take the workplace as an example, for it is here that covert passive aggressive bullying is commonly found. In workplaces the bully often understands that to be caught in the act of overt in-your-face bullying will only give sanction to the victim to have legal redress against the bully.
The workplace bully will often work hard to make sure they leave no evidential trail in their passive aggressive form of bullying. There is no one type of personality who will be found to act out bullying against another person.
However studies confirm that bullies may have once been bullied themselves in childhood. Bullies will often be found to have narcissistic or anti-social traits in their own personality, and to have psychological issues that have never been dealt with.
It is also true that the power of bullying is often related to the legitimate and informal power that the bully holds in the workplace. Formal power might be their job role with delegated powers of authority such as the right to hire and fire within reason, make redundant, or report directly to the Chair person on the Board.
Informal power might be the charismatic nature they personally possess, or their influencing ability with others. It may show in the alliances they build with power figures in the workplace, and even how they groom and control blindly loyal followers they have cultivated in the workplace who will never question their words, actions or version of events.
In my corporate consulting career I have witnessed several instances of passive aggressive bullies at work in the workplace. These type of bullies are destructive, cause long reaching effects on their victims and are often in denial or indifferent about how destructive and dysfunctional they are in their behaviours and often in their personal lives.
The workplace bully of whatever variety will turn the workplace culture toxic over time if they are not confronted and outed. In one sense they are control freaks who are paranoid in their thinking and who normally do not trust anyone, and whom are seeking confirmation they cannot trust you.
Bullies with narcissistic traits often typically are also themselves claimed victims who feel they are being betrayed by the person they persecute. In fact their paranoia creates a mind of distortion and so they alone tend to be the persecutors and betrayers of others.
These sort of bullies then claim their own bullying actions as justified revenge when in fact the real victim is innocent. Andrew Faas is one author in the field of workplace bullying who notes that “workplace bullying is far more subtle and complex……than school bullying or bullying of other types”.
The Innovation Economy as it is now being termed, is one of innovation and collaboration which often involves more than one person as the originator of the next big thing or the potential disruptive breakthrough. In these settings the typical bully does not do well and often becomes defensive and paranoid over time as they are not in control of fast paced dynamics and the windows of opportunities that arise.
In team based environments these sort of bullies tend to harbour mistrust, jealousy and resentment as others put forward ideas, gain business and show personal leadership. They tend to lose control and in their inadequacy will lash out via covert passively behaviours, overt aggressively behaviours or both, and start to destabilise the workplace and the team.
Over time the best people tend to leave these sort of workplaces as high performers are prime targets for the insecure, socially inept, and unable to truly collaborate bullying personality. The bully will tend to isolate and revert back to classic command and control structures in the workplace where the survivors are blindly loyal pawns, or adults with unresolved co-dependent behaviours who are unconsciously attracted to dysfunctional controlling or abusive personalities.
A narcissistic leader who runs their work life this way may take on for all appearances sake the archetype of the grape eating emperor, who swans from location to location, event to event, and thinks they bring inspired thought leadership and special gifts to bear in front of whoever is lucky enough to grace their presence. They may have an entourage of lackeys and servant employees who take care of all their functional and mundane tasks as often they are practically incompetent, and the bully may resist from doing any real mundane task that is beneath their emperor status.
The best way to describe this sort of scenario might be to describe a real life example I lived in my consulting career. One such example sticks out only because I came under the paranoid targeting of the emperor leader type, and I eventually joined other key consulting personnel in the company concerned who were ostracised, character assassinated, minimised, sidelined and left in no doubt but that there was no future there in that company for them or myself.
This example sticks in my mind as I have worked in many industries and in many workplaces on consultancy. This was the first time in a corporate setting I had encountered such a dysfunctional leader who fitted all the traits of a narcissistic bully and who employed passive aggressive tactics on their victims.
It all started out well, and perhaps too well in hindsight. My Conscious Business approach to business and the Design Thinking mindset made working with entrepreneurs a direct and often an emotionally and energetically challenging but exciting experience.
In this instance I was brought in to guide the founder of a new business concept towards commercialisation and maturation of the business. I had done this before and often work with disruptive technologies and business models in company start-up stages of their evolution.
The initial engagement was positive and the CEO, a lady called Nicky, was friendly and engaging. I did notice upfront that Nicky had a penchant for travel and the high life and that or a start-up company, their cash burn rate was way too high.
There was a sense of entitlement in Nicky that meant that rules that applied to others were not applicable to herself. Whilst people toiled away in the start-up company for no pay there was at the same time a salary recompense and a high expense recoup taking place each month for Nicky and a few blindly loyal side-kicks.
Nicky was a great salesperson but Nicky often could not deliver on the promises made. Nicky exaggerated and when investors were in the room you felt like you were working at Apple and not a startup.
This was because the claims of what could be delivered seemed to be more like that of a mature billion dollar company rather than a tech start-up. They had an unproven business model and some demonstration systems in place, but no commercial contracts fully executed.
One of the key things about human nature is that if someone loses trust in another person then that trust is often hard to regain. This is how it was with Nicky who demanded blind obedience and saw challenges to her ideas and actions as betrayal and a sign of being disloyal.
Nicky also was careful not to put things in writing and would largely not commit to things formally or even return emails, but rather would use phone calls and skype to sort out issues. This was a careful strategy that resulted in it being hard to prove that Nicky had either promised anything or had stated or committed to something.
This passive aggressive bullying technique of denial is a manipulation for in absence of verbal claims being written down and confirmed, this leaves a person being faced with hearsay rather than proof. Many staff had no real contracts and certainly no job descriptions as Nicky avoided putting structure, systems and processes in place as that would wrest some degree of control away from her personal way of leading and controlling staff.
Any attempt to force documentation and accountability to occur created a passive reaction via an outcome where exclusion, minimisation, expulsion and dismissal occurred. This targeted set of behaviours was easy to execute against the targeted victim and left staff walking on eggshells around Nicky and then also trying to prove their loyalty through personal sacrifice of unclaimed overtime worked, and becoming confidants who spilled gossip to Nicky.
Nicky was not an in-your-face sort of conflict person and she did not react to what Nicky did not agree with, and often withdrew and went silent and avoidant of the person she had conflict or a disagreement with. The problem for the victim was that they did not often know they were in conflict with Nicky, had no idea they were being minimised and avoided, and the silent execution of them happened around them rather than directly to them.
The staff turnover was significant enough and it often revolved around Nicky deciding that she did not want that person in their role, or in the company anymore. Nicky was fickle and could change her mind at a whim, with her being indifferent to others and the harm that her actions inflicted on those around her when she went negative about a person, an idea, or a stakeholder to the business.
I noticed over time people came to walk on eggshells around Nicky as they feared they could be the next target for gradual isolation, character assassination, and exclusion. There was an element of reframing that went on where once in the past when loyal, that person was well regarded, spoken of highly, and included.
Once they fell under suspicion and had been judged and condemned, they were then spoken of in terms of they had not contributed, questions were voiced about what had they done, how could we have carried them for so long, and that they were not team players but out for their own agenda.
The narrative about that person got completely rewritten as they were written out of the company. It was disloyal for remaining employees to stay in contact with the outed employee and that was a sin that could see one come under suspicion as a colluder against Nicky or the company.
One might having read all this then think the signs would be obvious but not so. There was little overt aggression, challenge or actual anger or conflict behaviour demonstrated face to face. The aggression went underground and the passive aggressive bullying took place quietly, continually, pervasively in the minds and beliefs of other employees against the victim.
What happened was that quiet whispering campaigns, and character assassination masked as falsely feigned quiet words of concern which were uttered to others, contained within an insincere act of concern. The sort of utterances were “I am really concerned X is not coping and may not be up to the job”, or “I am hearing disturbing stories about Y that might indicate they are not ethical, or mentally well, or have the confidence of customers and potential investors”.
What was happening was a snowball effect where over time other staff were groomed unknowingly by Nicky with these character assassinating words and expressions. The mind and beliefs of the receiving staff member were affected and altered in a negative way so it impacted on how they saw and behaved against the victim in the company.
Everyone believed Nicky and swallowed the mental and emotional mind control that she dished up when on a bullying mission. Staff soon stopped supporting, emailing, talking to, or associating with the victim, which was often the first time the victim noticed something was wrong.
By the time the victim worked out was happening, it was too late as the damage was done and everyone had been negatively primed against the victim. Now Nicky could be more visible and confrontational by stating officially she had doubts about the victim’s professionalism, commitment, fit in the company, or some other negative pretence.
The fight was over before it had started. Often a new person was appointed to a similar role to the victim, or another existing employee took over their work silently behind the victims back. This was a passive aggressive sign that their job and career were over in the company.
Sometimes another person just was directed to take over dealing with a client or an opportunity and the victim was left to work it out for themselves, rather than be formally told or given the respect of notification. There was no notification to the victim as they had been constructively dismissed already and the vacuum that existed spoke loudly to them only if they could work it out that this was its meaning.
The company kept changing names and directors and there was an element of restructuring and change that kept things fluid and chaotic. In this environment the constructive dismissal was harder to see and react to than if it had been occurring in a stable mature company exhibiting little disruption and dislocation.
I spoke privately to several of the victims and they were in a form of traumatic shock with bewilderment and confusion running in their mind, and of course suffering stress and anxiety. Each person did not see their execution coming and so struggled to accept what happened, or even explain it to themselves or others.
The victims were completely excluded, were left partly or completely unpaid and were denied owed benefits in varying degrees. The victims started to doubt themselves and blame themselves which is a common outcome for bullying victims.
The victims felt disempowered and ripped off because it was an abuse of power that is largely what bullying is really about. The other company staff members did not realise it but they too were colluding in the bullying so each victim underwent not only bullying by an individual but also by that of the silence of the work group.
What was a pattern in this workplace was there was no send off or leaving ritual for each victim. They simply were excluded and stopped coming to work when they realised there was no point.
There were no goodbyes, no emails or calls were returned, and no-one to say goodbye to as everyone was blindly loyal to the leader and turned their backs silently on the victim. It was a survival instinct behaviour for the remaining staff members not to comfort the victim as it was not safe to be seen consorting with the dismissed person.
In each remaining employee’s mind must have been a nagging fear based voice that said “but there go I if I do not toe the line”. The remaining staff felt some guilt and shame at not having had the spine or conviction to confront what they knew to be wrong.
What got me into trouble and put through the same wringer was I sent an email not only pointing out the bullying that had been occurring, but additionally alleging and exposing potential corruption by the directors and promoters in the company.
When I raised the issue I was threatened and that triggered my snakes and ladders ride down the slippery slope of the snake Nicky as I exited the company. I was conscious to what was going on as I am trained in this area and so was not a victim.
More so I had an education in business law and simple googling told me where I stood with both the bullying and the constructive dismissal of myself as a consequence.
Let me elaborate on that term constructive dismissal. Before I do so the overview given here is not to be relied upon as legal advice, and is general in nature. Consult a legal practitioner if the article resonates with you as potentially representing your own situation.
In the workplace you can through a negative pattern of repeated behaviours, but not just a single incident, such as the ones I described above, end up leaving a workplace due to effective or constructive dismissal. You may never get a resignation email or letter, nor be put on some form of HR based performance management plan.
The basic test of constructive dismissal is that the employers conduct causes an employee to resign. You may find that the employer directly asks you to resign, or you may alternatively simply get excluded, minimised, sidelined and made irrelevant as a manipulative but conscious strategy on behalf of an agent of the business.
In both cases you end up no longer part of the business. The employer will need to have conducted a serious breach of the formal employment contract, or the verbal or implied employment contract.
A constructive dismissal claim is generally made as part of some form of unfair dismissal claim, unlawful termination, or some form of general protection claim against the employer. The employee would need to prove that the termination of their employment was at the initiative of the employer through actions, inactions that left the employee no option by to leave, thus it being a constructive dismissal.
The legal action typically is a breach of employment contract with the breach being at least in part the constructive dismissal. The common types of constructive dismissal include:
- Forced resignation where the employer expressly insists that an employee resigns and the employee can show their resignation was not voluntarily.
- Legitimate reason for resignation where the employee chooses to resign due to unacceptable conduct of the employer or one of their agents or another employee. Bullying by the boss or another employee that the employer has unreasonably failed to prevent or punish would be one such valid example of a legitimate reason for resignation that could trigger a subsequent constructive dismissal claim. Making it impossible for the employee to do their work, or making it unsafe to do so are other examples.
Remember that what looks plain and simple in words and concepts may or not be the legal position in any individual case. That’s why lawyers exist and that’s why you are advised to consult them about your own particular circumstances.
I consulted a good lawyer that led to my getting justice and the other ex-employees were able to reassert themselves, rise above victimhood and also get justice. Remember bullies operate out of sight and away from what may create evidence as they are in fact just cowards.
Even the passive aggressive bullies are guilty of serious actions and I might argue that they are even more insidious and cowardly in the way they take their aggression underground and act it out in subtle ways. An American study done by the Mental Health America (MHA) organisation showed that 80 per cent of people who feel they are in an "unhelpful or hostile work environment", say they prefer to work alone rather than in teams.
Andrew Faas is the author of The Bully's Trap: Bullying in the Workplace and head of the Faas Foundation, which works with the MHA with workplace bullying. He notes that this preference itself creates isolation and can lead to the opportunity to find an excuse to dismiss the vulnerable employee.
Faas notes how the uncovered bully will often try and minimise their bullying behaviours by stating something like “That's just my style. I didn't mean to exclude you from a meeting, or I didn't mean to give you that information that made you look bad.”
This can often be another form of mind violence or manipulation that again disarms the employee who starts to doubt themselves and their own judgement. Bullies will often toy with the employee victims mind by causing them to doubt their own adult critical thinking, their own intuition, and their own judgement.
This is a form of psychological assault that is designed to breakdown the will and the reality of the victim. The longer it goes on then the more the victim may deteriorate to the point where they either collapse, succumb or fail.
In the broken down state the victim can be manipulated out of the business. They can be sacked due to poor performance due to the trauma, stress, anxiety or linked depression and absenteeism that is directly attributable to the bullying.
The MHA notes that mental health remains a stigmatised issue in most workplaces. People are often afraid to speak up when something is wrong or they are struggling as it might show weakness and make them vulnerable.
Employees do not want to be a problem employee and so often shoulder the bullying burden and struggle on. This is often compounded by the fact that the bully is often already a senior person in the company with legitimate power, influence, resources, and the ear of the senior leadership and HR areas of the business whom they can influence to their versions of events.
Successful bullies often use the HR processes and the senior leadership team to put further pressure on the victim by having them put on performance management as the problem rather than as the victim. Remember that a senior person in a company will be seen by other reasonable senior persons as credible and reasonable even when they might be a bully.
This line of thinking stems from the fact that reasonable adults expect that other adults they deal with will also act reasonably, and tend to give them the benefit of the doubt in such cases. Victims often fail to get heard and believed in workplaces where the bully is a senior manager or leader.
Bullying can become systemic over time where the bully is protected and not confronted and outed, and then made accountable for their behaviour. Toxic workplace cultures tend to result where everyone gives up when they see the bully is protected.
Toxic company cultures will suffer productivity drops and absenteeism increases as the emotional contagion spreads to everyone feeling unsafe in the workplace. When an intervention does not happen then staff often feel unsafe and uncomfortable and will start to examine their ability to leave.
Workplace bullying is a serious workplace issue. Passive aggressive bullying is but one form of this problem that wreaks havoc in the lives of those who are victimised, and those who look on and must stay silent and wonder if they might be next.
When bullying occurs it is up to us to stand up to those who would prey on us or others around us, lest we be victimised or we instead become part of what enables the bullying to continue. If we fail that test we are at risk, and need to get support from those who can help us in those vulnerable times.
If you are caught up in a bullying dynamic in the workplace or in your relationship, or in some other way, then either ring a legal practitioner, or you can contact Energetics Institute for support.