Workplace Bully Behaviors:
Visible Traits

Obvious bullying behaviors--screaming, threatening, harassing, ridiculing--may be tough to deal with, but at least everyone can see them for what they are. But most bullying behaviors aren’t readily apparent and the bullies remain unidentified. The burden is on you to discover their methods and intentions.

Non-obvious behaviors can be divided between relatively visible traits (covered in this section) and more hidden traits (covered in the next section).

Uncertainty leads to weak responses

Until you learn to instantly identify bullying behaviors, your responses to the bully are likely to be dominated by uncertainty or confusion. After a conversation with a potential bully, you ask yourself: “Was that an attack on my character? Was I just manipulated? Was he trying to undermine me?” You struggle to comprehend his underlying meaning, giving him the benefit of the doubt. By the time you fully understand his demeaning or deceptive treatment of you, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Knowledge brings power

Alternatively, armed with a full understanding of workplace bullies, you can immediately evaluate the situation. You ask yourself: “What is happening here? Is this a bullying tactic?” Because you recognize bullying as it occurs, you respond without delay. An immediate, assertive response is the best way to neutralize a bully and discourage future bullying.

By learning the enormous variety of techniques available to a workplace bully, you will be well on your way to effectively fighting back.

Don’t automatically assume you are being bullied

Some people see potential for bullying wherever they look. Companies can be dominated by bullies, of course, but usually the problems are more isolated than that.

High-energy workplaces may seem to have numerous bullies, when in reality these are well-intentioned people acting according to the highest standards of positive (though aggressive) leadership. Don’t automatically assume a bullying tactic represents an act of bullying.

If you understand workplace bullies, you will be less likely to jump to the wrong conclusion. Evaluate each situation as it occurs, always considering the intentions and honesty of the perpetrator. That will help you differentiate between true bullying and similar but non-threatening behaviors.

Aggressiveness may not be bullying

Let’s say you observe an action that appears, at least initially, to be overly harsh or manipulative. Using your knowledge of a bully’s typical behavior patterns and techniques, try to determine exactly what is happening. Is this a bully with bad intentions? Or a good person who is socially incompetent? Is he under a lot of stress? Is he having a bad day and lacks the maturity to control his behavior? Have you done something that he misinterpreted? Does he have a dry sense of humor (should you laugh instead)? Is this well-intentioned assertiveness from a strong and straightforward leader?

Aggressive but fair leaders

One of the more commonly misunderstood individuals is the fair but aggressive boss. This type of leadership is not bullying. Instead, he values high quality and demands excellence from his subordinates, just as he demands excellence from himself. He has a healthy sense of ambition, which includes working hard to deliver superior services. He believes in fair exchange and tries to treat everyone with respect. He provides reasonable compensation to those who successfully perform their job and add value to the company and its customers, knowing that doing otherwise would risk losing his best employees. There is nothing devious or cruel about this type of behavior.

An honest leader may criticize you in a straightforward, no-sugarcoating manner. That doesn’t mean he is bullying you. When you feel the sting of his words, it may seem like he is attempting to control you; but instead he may be providing you with valuable insights that will make you a better person and more productive employee. When he is genuinely interested in helping you achieve excellence in your job, it is unlikely he is bullying you.

High-energy companies

This type of situation is common in a high-energy company. If you want to be part of that type of environment, it will be useful to learn to distinguish between normal (though aggressive) behaviors and the negative, destructive behaviors of bullying.

It is never productive to artificially construct a scenario of bullying if you are merely an unmotivated worker in a high-pressure job. If that is your situation, either change your attitude or find a less demanding work environment.

Visible bullying traits

In the distorted reality created by a skilled bully, the ability to identify a bully’s behavior traits can help you think clearly and respond appropriately. If you can’t cut through his deceptions and see the big picture, you’ll find it difficult to understand his methods and respond appropriately.

Identifying bullying patterns

Thus, a clear perspective should be your starting point for fighting back. This clarity comes through your ability to accurately interpret the situation. Like a seasoned detective, you must assemble and analyze a variety of clues, searching for a meaningful pattern. Finally, through common-sense reasoning, you gain an understanding of your opponent and his tactics.

Possible clues include phrasing, mannerisms and motives. These will occur during daily interactions over a period of time. Many traits are well disguised. Even relatively visible traits, when considered as isolated incidents, leave a great deal of uncertainty (they may be personality quirks or aberrant behaviors of a reasonable person). But as part of a pattern, these behaviors leave no doubt as to the motives and character of the person displaying them. Once you recognize the pattern, your understanding of the bully will take a giant leap forward.

A set of nine basic traits constitute a bully’s most essential tools for manipulation, intimidation and control.

Visible bullying traits:

  1. Controls you
  2. Very ambitious
  3. Overly confident
  4. Strong-willed
  5. Argumentative
  6. Judgmental
  7. Highly critical
  8. Character assassin
  9. Vengeful

1. Controls you

Most workplace bullies are seeking to control their targets. he accomplishes this with a variety of behaviors.

He micromanages you

Rather than teaching you to perform your job independently, a bully frequently bothers you about specific tasks, interfering with the normal, logical process of your work. Or he badgers you to achieve an unrealistic level of perfection. When you achieve a high standard of quality in your work, he finds problems or makes changes anyway.

You may continue to strive to do your job well, using common sense to ignore his added wasteful tasks so you can focus on efficient, meaningful results. But rather than recognize your pursuit of excellence, a bully reprimands you for disobeying his highly specific orders.

A micromanager may never fully communicate your role and responsibilities, leaving you to figure things out on your own. But later, in a frenzy of activity, he complains you are failing, then proceeds to dictate your detailed tasks. He can be very dramatic in claiming to be the only one who knows how to run things around the company, perhaps saying: “I can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?”

An insecure or incompetent micromanager tries to stop you from using independent judgment and initiative. He doesn’t want to see you succeed because you are a threat to his position in the company. Most likely, with enough experience, you could do his job better than him, and he knows it. From his perspective, holding you down is his only way of surviving.

In order to formalize and enforce his micromanagement, he may create or implement strict measurements of your performance. He then threatens to hold you accountable. “Accountability” thus becomes another weapon in his overall pattern of harassment. When you resist his tightening control, he uses the dogmatic concept of accountability to punish you or have you fired.

When confronted by a peer or superior, a bully justifies his micromanaging behavior by blaming lazy, stupid, incompetent subordinates. Nothing is ever his fault.

He dominates conversations

He controls people by controlling conversations. He won’t allow his monologues to be interrupted, but in contrast cuts off others before they have a chance to articulate their positions. He refuses to explain things clearly, but accuses others of obfuscating a point, even when they have been thorough and articulate. He switches to new topics over the objections of others, but lashes out when someone else tries to switch to a new topic over his objection.

He prevents your communication with important people

If you are outspoken, he excludes you from key meetings. If you want to speak directly to his supervisor, he insists that all discussions must go up the chain of command (through him). And if you complain about his behavior to upper management, he launches an all-out attack on your character.

He calls on you to fulfill your duty

When you won’t agree to do things his way, he says you are ignoring your duty as a company employee. He then threatens to hold you accountable for irresponsible behavior or inadequate results, which he has defined according to unrealistic standards. If he is more subtle, he inserts the phrase “You should” before many of his demands, implying that since these are obviously your personal responsibility, ignoring them would be a clear failure on your part. Of course, your “duty” is always consistent with his selfish objectives.

He is very territorial

He fiercely protects his turf (department, projects, staff). He is outwardly indignant at intrusions, perhaps saying: “You’re trying to undermine my efforts to build the department.” At the same time, he is eager to steal someone else’s resources. But he downplays his attempts to “borrow” projects and staff from others, saying in his defense: “We’re all on the same team here.”

He uses your emotions to control you

He controls people by controlling their emotions. He wants you to crave his camaraderie by providing you with a sense of belonging, the feeling of being an integral part of the team. He may be lavish in his praise and promises, particularly during the honeymoon period of your relationship. But he is insincere, and his underlying intention is to exploit your emotions.

When you see through his manipulations and begin to resist his control, he suggests that others don’t think very highly of you. “But they don’t know you like I do” provides him cover for his attack. His underlying message is that he is your only true supporter, so you had better make him happy.

If you continue in your refusal to cooperate, he threatens loss of camaraderie. his basic message: If you don’t do what he wants, you will be failing him and your peers; then you won’t be part of the team anymore--the camaraderie will be gone. “Come on, be a team player,” he might say; “we all need you to get with the program.”

Once he actually withdraws his friendship and support, he flaunts his camaraderie with your peers, trying to make you jealous. Through this game, he subtly attempts to pressure you to return to the fold, and to all the benefits that accompany your submission to his authority.

If you continue to resist, he switches tactics, causing you to feel fear, guilt, shame, jealously or hate. Relief from painful emotions, and return to positive ones, await you. All you need to do is submit to his dominance.

His affection and support come at a price

As a corollary, he offers a fulfilling friendship and long-term relationship, making it clear that these are rewards for obeying him. He initially supports you within the company, but this is conditional upon your loyalty towards him. He does you favors to cement your friendship, and then later claims you are indebted to him. Over time, you will discover that there are always strings attached to his “giving” nature.

He wants to control how you work and play

He micromanages your daily routine, perhaps by chastising you for being twenty minutes late to work, or dictating the precise time for your lunch break (though you are in a work environment where exact schedules aren’t necessary). He may ruin your weekends by creating arbitrary Monday deadlines. He may even dictate company-related training and leisure, including seminars, get-togethers after work and company team-days or retreats.

He wants to live you life for you

He tries to make key decisions about your future, such as important work assignments, transfers and training. When you ignore his advice, he says you are making a serious mistake. when you continue to defy him, he says you are damaging your future.

To satisfy a bully, work must appear to be your only priority in life. It won’t bother him to see you sacrifice your family, your health, your happiness--as long as it brings you under his control.

2. Very ambitious

It is a good idea to be ambitious, to have goals, to want to be good at what you do, but it is a terrible mistake to let drive and ambition get in the way of treating people with kindness and decency.
 - Robert Solow

A workplace bully may seem possessed by his desire to achieve power and success. This extreme ambition is often at the root of his domineering nature.

The degree of his ambition is revealed in several specific traits.

Highly focused

To a highly ambitious bully, his success is all that matters. he seeks increased power and prestige, along with the accompanying financial rewards. He displays an uncommon zeal in pursuit of his goals. Though he sometimes strives to help others reach their goals, it is always because it will be a boost to his own career.

He outwardly pursues company goals to conceal his extreme self-interest. he may even discover a way to use company goals as an excuse to aggressively pursue his own selfish ends. For example, in response to aggressive company growth plans, he may build a large, successful department, but his sole intention is to start his own company. His goal in “empire building” is to cement client relationships and develop loyal subordinates. He may even manipulate upper management into investing large amounts of capital during the lean years of growing his department, then leave when his “empire” becomes profitable.

Extreme ambition can keep a bully focused over the course of his entire career, often leading to high levels of accomplishment. Because of this, bullies are often in positions of great power and influence in government, academia, entertainment and media. It’s a shame those powerful individuals never learned the importance of always treating others fairly and with respect.

Power hungry

An ambitious bully is constantly seeking to add to his power base. To expand his influence, he takes on additional projects, hires new subordinates and takes a larger share of the company budget.

He often tries to gain power over his peers. For example, he entices you--with false promises, of course--to contribute your time to building his department. or he tries to get you assigned to a project that he controls. Another tactic is for him to offer you an equal role on a project, in a co-management arrangement, but later make you subordinate to him (which he accomplishes through other bullying behaviors, such as undermining you with upper management).

He may seek to be on a committee that sets rules, strategy or direction for the company, perhaps even leading the charge in a strategic planning process. In this way, he hopes to increase his influence and arrange for his advancement within the company. When a bully seems enthusiastic about the company’s new strategy or mission statement, watch for him to maneuver himself into a larger, more powerful role in the company.

Colors the perceptions of upper management

His ambition causes him to constantly strive to make himself look good to upper management, while making his peers look bad.

He passes along hearsay to upper management, with no regard for the truth. He distorts their perceptions, casting himself as the hero and a peer as the villain. He conceals his own mistakes or mistreatment of subordinates, then uses innuendo to shift the blame for low morale onto others.

Or he insinuates that a peer is a dire threat to the company’s profitability, perhaps by understating the likely growth of that person’s department. At the same time, he promises big profits from his own activities. his goal is to convince upper management to give him more power and money.

Maximizes control of company resources

He knows that controlling company resources is an important tool for achieving his personal goals. He tries to maximize his use of staff, budgets, outside consultants, honors and awards, special benefits and other perks, and attention from upper management.

At the same time, he prevents others from obtaining sufficient company resources to successfully complete their projects. For example, he preempts resources by taking them in advance of his actual needs. Or he shifts resources to his projects by claiming higher priority. He may even convince talented people from within the company to transfer into his department. Of course, if someone wants to transfer out of his department, he throws a fit.

Exploits subordinates to outshine his peers

He uses empty promises or subtle threats to get his subordinates to work long hours, then takes personal credit for motivating them to make extreme sacrifices. He thus claims to possess superior leadership skills.

When members of his department become disgruntled, he begins to systematically ruin their reputation, eventually firing them. If someone mentions the high rate of turnover in his department, he downplays the significance, or he blames someone else for the problem. “They’re leaving,” he may tell the president, “because you won’t let me pay them as much as they can earn elsewhere.”

He may convince upper management to reward his subordinates with exorbitant bonuses, as long as the bonuses are paid from a general pool of compensation rather than coming out of his own pocket. This usually ignores the reality that the long hours put in by his subordinates provided no actual benefit to the company. Instead, his subordinates’ wasteful overtime was necessitated by his management inefficiency or department-building (which he is planning to take from the company once it becomes profitable).

When excessive bonuses to a bully’s subordinates result in unfairly meager bonuses for others in the company, he argues vehemently about the importance of rewarding those who work the hardest. This ignores relative effectiveness and overall productivity. In this best-case scenario for the bully, he converts exploitation of his subordinates into exploitation of his peers’ subordinates.

3. Overly confident

Although some people bully others to compensate for low self-esteem, a successful workplace bully is likely to possess a high level of self-confidence and self-satisfaction. This contributes to his overbearing nature.

Excess self-esteem

An overly confident bully suffers from the opposite of too little self-esteem: he has too much self-esteem. Although it is good to have a healthy sense of one’s own dignity and worth as a human being, he goes much further. He has an inflated, boastful pride in his character and intelligence.


An arrogant nature is frequently the defining characteristic of a workplace bully. Basically, he feels superior to those around him. He exaggerates his own importance while belittling the importance of others; or he admires his own skills while disrespecting the skills of others. He has contempt for anyone he considers less powerful or less intelligent than him (in other words, just about everyone he knows).

With a smug, overbearing demeanor, he dismisses the viewpoints of peers and subordinates as unworthy of his attention. He believes he is right and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong. He assumes you will recognize his superior intelligence, experience and judgment, and you will soon accept his point of view. When you don’t, he concludes you are stubborn, confused, biased or slow-witted (“moron” and “idiot” are labels he might apply to you behind your back).

Of course, he is never self-critical--unless he wants to emphasize how rarely he makes a mistake. Also, unlike an emotionally well-adjusted leader, he is unable to laugh at himself. In fact, he is usually oblivious to his limitations (which may provide interesting opportunities for mocking him).

Arrogance invites ruin; humility receives benefits.
 - Chinese proverb

Intellectual narcissism

An overly confident bully may be very fond of his intellect. he believes he possesses exceptional knowledge and judgment, or perhaps the ability to grasp abstract concepts and use deductive reasoning to arrive at insightful opinions, unlike others in the company. As a result, he treats his ideas as wonderfully sophisticated and profoundly important, while dismissing the ideas of others as poorly conceived and impractical.

When you disagree with him--or even act uninterested or non-committal--he claims you lack the capacity to understanding and appreciate his viewpoints. “You don’t seem to be able to grasp what I’m telling you,” he might say; or: “It’s very complex; I know it’s difficult for you to understand.” Or he refuses to explain himself, particularly if he has a different area of expertise, saying: “You wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway.”

A bully’s intellectual narcissism often becomes his Achilles’ heel, particularly when it makes him unable to recognize flaws in his thinking. Over time, this can cause him to become detached from reality. In his obliviousness, he truly believes that any failures caused by his errors were actually caused by others. Eventually, he begins to make major errors of judgment, such as wrongly predicting the likely consequences of his plans. Even when common sense screams the opposite, he adamantly defends his opinions and decisions, attacking you for questioning him. And when the inevitable failures occur, he turns his vast intellect to the task of identifying the culprits, then turning them into scapegoats.

On the upside, a narcissist who drives a company to failure may still sleep well at night, since he knows he is infallible and all those problems could never have been his own fault.


A highly confident bully is usually very outspoken in praising his own accomplishments. He is positive and enthusiastic when describing his performance, minimizing any mistakes or blaming them on the failures of others. He seems to have an anecdote for every occasion, usually featuring himself in the role of the clever hero. He may launch into long monologues about his past successes.

In meeting new people, he seems intent on impressing them with his brilliance, power or accomplishments. He appears to be a born salesman, conveying grace and charm as he smoothly persuades others that he has surmounted great odds to achieve remarkable things.

In contrast, when describing the performance of others, a self-glorifying bully becomes skeptical or even cynical. He belittles their accomplishments as insignificant, or even a step in the wrong direction. When someone else’s accomplishment is too obvious to criticize, he remains silent or is superficially congratulatory, soon shifting the attention back to himself and his contributions to the company.

At the extreme, his behavior may border on self-worship (another opportunity for you to mock him).

Self-centered and self-absorbed

His excessive self-confidence is usually intertwined with an unhealthy level of preoccupation with himself. Even if he isn’t seeking self-glory, he still seems to relate everything back to himself--his situation, plans, goals.

It is hard to distract him from his self-absorption long enough to convey your ideas. When he listens to you, he interprets your words from his narrow viewpoint. thus, he often misunderstands your meaning and wrongly concludes you are flawed in your thinking. Arguing with him can be about as productive as sitting in your living room and trying to debate a pompous politician appearing on a cable news channel.

4. Strong-willed

A successful workplace bully is typically very strong-willed. Never seeming satisfied, he constantly pressures you to change your thinking, yield to his objectives and fulfill his demands. His drive to succeed is often at the root of his desire to dominate others through the strength of his will.

Pushy to an extreme

No matter how much you give him, he always wants more. He demands extreme actions and commitments. He is constantly pushing his proposals, often seeming to shove his ideas down the throats of others. He stops at nothing in ruthless pursuit of his personal goals.

Increasingly demanding over time

He assumes you will ultimately surrender to his demands, so he keeps pushing. Once you cave in, he begins making greater demands, knowing that you tend to submit when adequately pressured. He never seems satisfied, always demanding more and more from you.


He insists that only his suggestions are reasonable. In his contempt for the ideas and suggestions of others, he ridicules any alternatives to his plan. He belittles creative discussions as a waste of time, sniping at the ideas of others to intimidate them into silence.

When his behavior is challenged, he pompously claims to be the only one who is taking a serious approach to the matter. In his narrow-mindedness, he believes that he alone possesses a clear sense of purpose, and thus he is justified in imposing his will upon others.

Dominates meetings to achieve his objectives

A strong-willed bully exploits meetings to persuade and control others. He uses his aggressive, outspoken personality to dominate the discussion.

For example, he insists that everyone give full attention to his ideas, but sidetracks any discussion of the ideas of others. He doesn’t participate in group give-and-take exchanges, except perhaps to shout down a stubborn opponent. When he doesn’t get his way, he becomes angry. When others don’t listen to him, he launches a verbal tirade.

When someone presents an opposing viewpoint, he interferes through the silent use of aggressive body language, such as constantly frowning, glaring at the speaker, using facial expressions that express his disgust, sighing frequently, rolling his eyes, aggressively fidgeting (such as tapping his fingers), suddenly dropping his arms on the table in obvious disgust, or just sitting there with arms crossed and a sour look on his face.

Or he ends a meeting after he has presented his ideas, before others have spoken fully. When he can’t end a meeting, he looks for an excuse to leave. And if he can’t leave when he wants, he repeatedly attempts to change the subject; or he tries to distract others by joking around, holding whispered conversations or checking messages on his cell phone.

Attacks you personally if you question his proposal

When he thinks you are attacking his ideas, he attacks you personally. He may imply you have selfish motives, or suggest you are experiencing a lapse in judgment. If that doesn’t stop you, he becomes visibly frustrated and expresses disappointment with your behavior, perhaps saying: “I expected you, of all people, to support a plan that is so obviously good for the company.”

If you continue to express opposition, he becomes angry at your narrow-minded thinking or discounts your knowledge and experience.

Or he tries to destroy your credibility by belittling your character and intelligence. He may even launch a retaliatory strike, such as bringing up a “major problem” you are supposedly causing in the company, perhaps saying: “How can you sit there and criticize this plan when you can’t even control your own projects?”

He may also encourage others to attack you. He asks them leading questions--he already knows their likely response--to elicit criticism. Alternatively, he repeats negative comments someone had said in private. For example, he says: “I’ve had others tell me you’re stubborn.” But those negative comments were carefully elicited by the bully solely for the purpose of attacking you at a meeting. Perhaps he asked his most loyal staff assistants about you: “Doesn’t _____ seem a little stubborn now and then?”

Tries to win every point

A strong-willed bully considers it essential to win every point in a discussion. Rather than expose himself to criticism for making an occasional mistake, he defends even his most unrealistic ideas. He doesn’t want to become a victim of one of his favorite attacks: berating someone for a minor, irrelevant error in an otherwise plausible opinion (not realizing normal people would never pursue such a meaningless point). He also views any argument as a battle of wills, seeking to prove himself right at all costs, thus showing others that he possesses superior intellect and judgment.

Through his take-no-prisoners attitude, he believes he can enhance his reputation and strengthen his power in the company.

Enforces his will by creating urgent deadlines

A strong-willed bully readily agrees to unreasonable deadlines suggested by superiors, customers or clients. He typically underestimates time requirements in order to pressure his subordinates to work excessive overtime. He uses deadlines to push others to comply with his ambitious plans.

When subordinates unite in opposing an impossible deadline, he refuses to request an extension. He may even respond with a motivational speech, such as: “I know you can get it done; it’s just going to take a little overtime.” In describing his behavior to upper management, he portrays himself as a strong leader, perhaps saying: “I really had to turn up the heat, but that’s what it takes sometimes to get the job done.”

He also exploits urgent deadlines to pressure you to make quick decisions, before getting all the facts. When you try to delay a decision until you can properly research and evaluate the issue, he attacks you with demeaning comments, such as suggesting you have “paralysis of analysis.”

Oddly enough, if he weren’t such a manipulative, self-serving prima donna, he would actually be displaying some good leadership qualities (imagine a highly effective military leader engaged in an urgent battle against a dangerous opponent).

5. Argumentative

An argumentative bully doesn’t believe in the fair exchange of ideas based on logical reasoning and common-sense interpretation, but instead feels compelled to force his opinions on others. He accomplishes this, to a great extent, by disputing any ideas in opposition to his own, or discrediting anyone who presents those ideas.

As part of his argumentative approach, he seeks to gain the upper hand through a variety of tactics.

Disagrees with everything you say

When he asks you a question, he rarely accepts your answer. He is always challenging and contradicting your ideas. Even when he actually agrees with you, he responds in a combative manner.

Communication is mostly talking

His communication style is to dominate every conversation. He offers a variety of anecdotes, stories, facts and data to convince others, but is impatient when his opponents offer “irrelevant” or “unreliable” information (that is, anything that contradicts him).

When he appears to seriously consider the viewpoints of others, he is merely gathering information for use in a counterargument. Because he has no genuine interest in your ideas, he never truly engages in a two-way conversation.

Obscures your viewpoint

When you argue with him, he misrepresents your viewpoint, then discredits this straw man position. Or he attacks an unimportant detail of your viewpoint--one in which you actually are wrong--to discredit your overall position. He suggests that one mistake in your facts reveals the overall errors of your thinking.

Even worse, he implies that you intentionally misled everyone. At the extreme, he accuses you of lying because you said something in the past that turned out to be false, ignoring the obvious logic that you weren’t lying if you said what you believed to be true at the time. To support his absurd charge, he may claim you possessed information unavailable to others.

By convincing others you are biased, narrow-minded and occasionally deceptive, he prevents them from understanding your viewpoint. in this manner, he eliminates any opposition to his ideas.

Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.
 - Abraham Lincoln

Misinterprets what you say

An argumentative bully misinterprets others as a matter of habit. This tends to keep everyone around him off-balance, allowing him to argue more effectively for his own ideas.

During conversations, he attacks something you don’t remember saying, usually because he took it out of context or misinterpreted your meaning. After characterizing your thinking in an incorrect manner, he ignores your attempts to correct him, or wrongly accuses you of possessing a flawed memory.

For example, let’s say you recommend adding another staff assistant to meet a looming deadline. The bully refuses your request, so you work extreme hours to successfully meet the unrealistic deadline. Then rather than thanking you for your sacrifice, the bully says: “Remember how convinced you were that we wouldn’t meet the deadline? Well, it turns out you were wrong.” When you try to correct his misstatement of your meaning, he responds: “Don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you realize what can be accomplished around here if you are willing to put in enough overtime.”

He may also use the tactic of misinterpretation to intimidate or embarrass you. For example, in a sarcastic tone of voice, he inaccurately paraphrases your position: “Oh, so you’re suggesting _____. Well, that would do a lot of good.”

Misinterpreting others is a favorite tactic of successful manipulators.

Side-steps your valid points, rather than debating logically

An argumentative bully won’t address the substance of the issue, but instead brings up unrelated ideas. Or he restates his prior points so the discussion goes around in circles.

When you argue with irrefutable logic, he counters with authoritative quotes and stories that he claims support his position. He refuses to be drawn into an intelligent discussion based on commonly understood or verifiable facts. To support his opinions, he prefers to use information known only to him (which is why a bully spends so much time talking about his unique work experiences, usually consisting of unverifiable information).

Easily feels threatened and goes on the offensive

When you seem to question his ideas, he becomes angry. If you appear to support an alternative viewpoint, he attacks you. He goes on the offense to avoid defending his ideas, since a serious discussion could reveal flaws in his thinking.

If you articulate a logical viewpoint, he tries to derail the conversation, perhaps through an aggressive attack unrelated to the current topic. This could involve bringing up unrelated issues to distract others from the soundness of your perspective, or using innuendo to provoke you into defending yourself.

His goal is to create chaos, then steer the conversation back to his proposed solutions, effectively shutting out your point of view.

Pulls rank to silence others

Another method of shutting down opposing viewpoints is for him to claim superior authority, knowledge or experience. He also may claim a greater concern and superior commitment to the company’s long-term objectives.

He speaks with authority, rattling off various facts--statistics, financial data, quotes, anecdotes--which he claims support his position. If you try to point out the irrelevancy or inaccuracy of his “facts,” he becomes angry and pompously puts you in your place, perhaps asserting that his past experiences have provided him with clearly superior credentials, making him uniquely qualified to evaluate and conclude on the issue at hand. In a torrent of words, he attempts to sweep away all opposition.

Mocks and ridicules your ideas

If he finds himself losing an argument, he may take a more extreme approach by making a joke out of your ideas and opinions. He intends to convey to others that you shouldn’t be taken seriously. In this manner, he can effectively shut down your point of view, usually embarrassing you in the process.

6. Judgmental

A workplace bully tends to judge others in order to maintain an attitude of superiority. This provides him with a solid basis for imposing his viewpoints upon others.

Passes judgment on your actions and intentions

Quick to assume the worst, a judgmental bully suggests your actions reveal a lack of character or competence. Or he exaggerates your mistakes to justify his conclusion that you behaved poorly.

To support his unfair judgments, he diligently repeats someone else’s criticism of you, regardless of the validity. He suggests that a single person’s comment reflects everyone’s viewpoint. For example, he says: “The new staff assistants just don’t respect you” after hearing only one unwarranted complaint from a difficult employee.


He stereotypes you to diminish you and your role in the company. For example, he describes you as extroverted, introverted, analytical or conceptual, proving you are limited and biased. In his judgmental manner, he doesn’t allow for the typical complexity of most people.

He may try to label you with a demeaning term, such as lazy, unmotivated or disruptive. He often uses this tactic in response to a specific event: he misrepresents the event, making you look bad, and glibly applies a damaging label. For example, if you forget to perform a minor task, he exaggerates its importance and calls you careless. Or if you don’t work an extra hour or two one night, he claims you caused him to miss a major deadline and calls you uncommitted.

He may overgeneralize in a more subtle way. For example, when you make an honest mistake, he implies you intentionally torpedoed his efforts. “The next time you don’t agree with what I’m doing,” he might say, “why don’t you just come right out and tell me?” Or he treats an isolated incident as a major character flaw: “That’s just like you.”

Through repetition of his unwarranted overgeneralizations, he attempts to diminish the reputation of his opponents and reduce their influence over others.

Expresses personal disappointment in your performance

His judgmental nature shines clearly when he shows his disappointment in your performance. For example, he criticizes you for failing to meet unrealistically high goals (goals he had forced upon you). Or he unfairly compares you to a peer who had easier tasks or more support from others.

When you make a mistake, he suggests a worst-case scenario could have resulted, perhaps justifying his future micromanagement. He tends to emphasize his disappointment in your shortcomings, rather than show you how to build on your strengths. He may conclude by wrongly claiming you aren’t pulling your own weight in the company.

His only regret is that he can’t sentence you to an appropriate punishment after he passes judgment on your character and performance.

7. Highly critical

A workplace bully may try to keep others on the defensive through his constant criticism. Eventually, his subordinates feel inferior and incompetent, as if nothing could ever be enough to please him. Through constant criticism, he grinds people into submission, or causes them to quit.

A bully may use a variety of techniques to criticize you.

Always finding fault

Because he is always looking for something to criticize, he is more likely to detect inconsequential errors. His extreme standard of perfection provides him with ample opportunity for criticism. By showing he is never satisfied with your work, he keeps you on edge.

Diminishes your importance

He harps on your mistakes, belittles your accomplishments and discounts your ideas, all for the purpose of reducing your importance in the eyes of yourself and others.

Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent.
 - Proverbs 11:12.

Criticizes you indirectly

Using a subtle trick of association, he attempts to criticize you indirectly. For example, he makes sure everyone in your department knows about your close alliance with someone else in the company, then he goes out of his way to demean that person. Or he belittles your former employer, thus implying your background is inferior. Alternatively, he may discount the importance of a project in which you play a major role, or claim one of your past projects was a failure.

During these attacks, he never once mentions your name. Even so, he tarnishes your reputation with those too naive to recognize his manipulation.

Criticizes you with presuppositions

One of his more devious techniques is the use of presuppositions, which covertly attack you; this avoids any outward criticism (a presupposition is a hidden premise to the rest of his statement or question).

For example, he says: “If you really cared about the company, you would want to work this weekend,” when in fact your objection is to the inefficient and unproductive approach proposed by the bully. However, his subtle message is that you are selfish and disloyal; unless, of course, you yield to the bully’s demands.

Typical presuppositions:

“Try not to let me down again.”
(implies you let him down before)

“Do you think it will be as much a struggle for you as last time?”
(implies you weren’t competent on a past assignment)

“If you really wanted to succeed here, you would...”
(implies you don’t want to succeed, perhaps because you are lazy or unmotivated)

“I know there’s not much time, but don’t be afraid to tackle this.”
(implies you lack self-confidence, when in fact you were objecting to an unreasonable deadline)

“Even you can handle this.”
(implies you have below-average skills)

Cross-examines you intensely

A highly critical bully uses aggressive questioning to keep you on the defensive. During this process, he ignores or misunderstands your explanations. His tone of voice conveys his negative opinion.

Or he seems to have an instantly negative reaction to anything you say. Even when you are merely asking a question--perhaps seeking to clarify his criticism--he acts as if you are avoiding the issue or shifting blame.

“Just answer my question!”

“Don’t go looking for someone else to blame!”

Once again, he conveys his harshly critical opinion of you without a direct attack.

Harps on the negative of your performance

A highly critical bully ignores positive results to focus on the negative aspects of your performance. He exaggerates your mistakes and reminds you of past failures, often repeating his attack several times over an extended period of time.

At a meeting, he implies your actions caused a larger failure, but refuses to let you explain what really happened. By emphasizing the negative, he attempts to use his critical nature to dominate you.

Never allows for unintentional mistakes

In another sign of his highly critical nature, he never considers the possibility that a mistake may be an honest misunderstanding. Instead, he automatically assumes the worst. By the time the truth is revealed, he has already harshly criticized you in front of others, or even written his unfair criticism into your performance review.

Shows his disapproval by being impatient with you

In another indirect method of conveying criticism, he impatiently does something himself rather than waiting for you (like the tech guy who impatiently says “Move!” when you can’t follow his vague, jargon-laced instructions). He may also impatiently cut you off in conversations, rather than hearing you out and acknowledging your input.

Criticizes your personality and emotions

In a particularly aggressive tactic, a highly critical bully attempts to undermine your self-confidence by suggesting your demeanor falls short of professional standards. For example:

“What’s wrong with you today?”

“People can sense your mood.”

“You’re bringing down the project team.”

8. Character assassin

When a workplace bully can’t win with facts and logic, he may resort to attacking your character. At a minimum, his intention is to undermine your credibility pertaining to a single issue. However, if you are a serious threat to his future, he may act to seriously damage your reputation or get you fired.

Suggests you are biased

By suggesting you have hidden motives, he attacks your integrity and reliability. This may cause others to view you with suspicion, weakening your influence within the company.

Misleads others to destroy your reputation

He may distort past events in a manner that portrays you in a very harsh light. For example, he omits vital information that would explain your action as wise and appropriate, instead characterizing your action as vengeful or self-serving. His objective is to paint a negative, distorted picture of your attitude and objectives.

A workplace bully is at his most devious when he is subtly, consistently maligning the character of others.

Attacks your character when you aren’t there to defend yourself

He waits until you aren’t around to level his most severe criticisms. For example, at lunch with others, he harshly attacks your character, then refuses to let others come to your defense, claiming they don’t know you like he does. Over time, he establishes your supposed character flaws as common knowledge within the company.

Suggests you are deficient psychologically

He may stereotype your personality type in a derogatory way, perhaps painting a negative picture of your mental attitude and emotional make-up. For example, when you aren’t around, he describes you as “An introvert who will never learn to be a team player” or “A manic-depressive who is sometimes a loose cannon.”

In a more subtle way, he may instigate a discussion with others in which your psychological make-up is the topic. For example, he points out an unusual recent behavior of yours (neglecting to explain the context), then asks if anyone knows why you acted so strangely. Even when he doesn’t specifically attack you, his intent is still to tarnish your image and change the way people react to you.

He may use similar tactics one-on-one in order to intimidate you. For example, he explains the weaknesses of extroverts and introverts in a typical workplace, suggesting that you are one or the other.

9. Vengeful

When you interfere with a workplace bully’s plans, he may retaliate with a vengeance, perhaps even using extreme tactics with devastating results to your reputation.

Using your mistakes to hurt you

A vengeful bully won’t confront you directly with a mistake because he doesn’t want to give you a chance to resolve the problem. Instead, he acts like everything is fine, only mentioning your mistake, in an exaggerated manner, when others are present. By catching you off guard, he damages your reputation.

If you later prove to him your mistake was insignificant and easily corrected--or perhaps wasn’t even your fault--he still won’t correct himself in front of others. He may even repeat the lie again and again.

Sets you up for failure

A vengeful bully may set the stage for your eventual failure in the company. For example, he overloads you with time-critical work or gives you assignments well beyond your capabilities. He sets conflicting deadlines or doesn’t clearly communicate expectations. He withdraws critical resources, such as experienced staff or budget allocations. As things progress, he makes himself unavailable at important review points. Or he changes the rules mid-stream.

Reduces your role in the department

Alternatively, a vengeful bully tries to make you worthless to the company by taking away important assignments without giving you new ones, or giving you meaningless assignments. or he stops providing face-to-face time with him, requiring you to report to a new boss, perhaps someone less experienced or less competent than you.

Makes your failures obvious to upper management

Once a vengeful bully causes your failures, he is very diligent in pointing those out to management, but never with an explanation of extenuating circumstances. When he needs to justify your termination, he tells management that you had clear performance objectives, which you obviously failed to meet, or that you were on probation, with this latest assignment acting as a test case.

If he sees you becoming disenchanted, he begins to discredit you. He never wants a disenchanted employee to expose his unfair tactics, so he begins the process of discrediting you long before you quit. By diminishing your credibility, he reduces the risk of upper management paying attention to your complaints about his bullying tactics.

Perhaps he makes it widely known that you are failing. During this process, he builds a case for your termination. Then if you tell others about his harsh behaviors, he fires you (he may even claim that he had already fired you, before you spoke out). By then, he will have reduced your credibility to the point that no one takes your complaints seriously.

If you quit, he suggests you were forced out due to incompetence. If you quit before he has discredited you, he suggests you couldn’t handle the job, you didn’t have a good work ethic, you couldn’t get along with others, you lacked the necessary skills or you just didn’t fit in with the company culture. When you deny him the satisfaction of firing you, he makes up for it by destroying your reputation.

Like an Emperor with no clothes

With so many tactics available to a workplace bully (and that’s before we get into hidden traits), it’s no wonder that bullies so frequently dominate their environments, especially when your co-workers don’t recognize the signs of bullying.

With your developing knowledge of skilled bullies, you may feel like the child who sees that the Emperor has no clothes. But don’t yell out that the bully has no integrity; it takes most people a very long time--often requiring bitter personal experiences--before they can perceive the truth.