Are You an Accidental Bully?



Most of us have been exposed to a great deal of information on bullying at work, and quite possibly have had the misfortune to work for one.


When I typed in bullying at work” into Google, I got 95,300,000 results, so it looks as if there are any number of people who are concerned about this issue.  (And no, I didn’t look at all the citations – like most people I looked at 4 or 5 Google pages, then stopped).  But I would recommend a good Canadian starting site if you happen to believe that you are a target of a bully –


Google will point you toward sites that can help you to identify what bullying is, whether or not you are being bullied, how to deal with bullying at work, case studies about workplace bullying, what not to do if you are being bullied.


There are all sorts of information on what causes bullying, types of bullies, cyber bullying, and, without blaming the victim, the existence of what has been termed “the provocative victim”.   And this leads me to my topic for the day – what I call the “Accidental Bully”.(AB)


A site called Bullying Statistics (  defines the provocative victim as:  Provocative Victims- People who are annoying and condescending to others and/or aggressive verbally, or in other ways that are not picked up by those in authority, may contribute to the dynamic that can be characterized as bullying by one individual but actually grows out of provocation by another individual.
In other words, you might become an Accidental Bully if you are in close contact for any length of time with a Provocative Victim.  This PV might be the person who comes into your office on a daily basis to complain about things, often times with a very thin veneer that covers the unstated premise that the problem is your fault and you should be doing something about it.  In grade school we referred to them as “tattle tales “but they see themselves, rather self-righteously to be sure, as the courageous whistleblower who is attempting to right the wrongs of the office.


Or, the PV might be the worker who always starts their comment with a personally disparaging comment on their own ability or knowledge.  “I don’t know if this is important, but”, or “I’m probably wrong, but”, or excusing every error made with some self-deprecating remark.


So, while the existence of a PV may indeed turn you into an AB, that is not the only reason why we can find these types of people in the workplace. More often (in my experience) the AB is a person who is so focused on results that they didn’t even consider the people factor.   Many of them want, sincerely, to help people, (as long as the work gets done to an acceptable standard) but they do not see being empathic toward how people are feeling as something that is helpful, useful, or even necessary.  Proponents of “tough love”, don’t ask them for laudatory feedback because they will give you the “facts” as they see them.  If you are upset with the bluntness of their remarks, their response is quite simple – if you can’t stand the heat then get out of the kitchen.  They may not go around gratuitously criticizing people, but if asked, they do not focus on how people feel but rather on what they think people need to know.  How you feel is much less important than what you do.


They are not necessarily power-hungry, vicious cowards who get a thrill out of seeing someone humiliated. They don’t generally embarrass people who come up with sub-par work in public, engage in public ridicule, isolate or maliciously gossip or spread rumours.  They are, however, particularly demanding to work for and harshly criticize performance that is not up to their standard.


When we look at reports of targets of bullying, it is not surprising to see how many of them focus on how the Bully made the Target feel. There might not have been any threats associated with the feedback, or any physical bullying.  The comments might even be truthful (the report really was done poorly) but how the message was delivered is the critical issue.


So, in the modern workplace we are faced with the ABs and they can constitute a big problem.  Usually they are uber productive, competent, results-oriented managers who clearly could use some charm school.  They either do not see that what they are doing is inappropriate, or they simply dismiss the target as just being thin-skinned and unable to take criticism. There are, as well, some Targets who may be overly thin-skinned and interpret every glance as a malevolent curse.  Of course, the Target’s trump card is to go on stress leave.  And the unfortunate thing is that BOTH think their behaviour is justified, and that the other person is the one who has the problem and should be dismissed.


Bottom line?  In today’s workplace it is a touch more hazardous to your career to be an AB than an overly thin-skinned Target.  And I find it rather ironic that in some of the cases in which I have been involved, the AB is treated in much the same way that s/he has treated the Target.