When Good Things Happen To Bad People: Disturbing News About Workplace Bullies

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As if life isn’t unfair enough for the alarming number of people who are bullied at work—or otherwise adversely affected by such behavior—recent research suggests that a lot of workplace bullies achieve high levels of career success. In fact, their bullying and on-the-job achievements might just be related.That’s according to a new study (“Political Skill and the Job Performance of Bullies”) in the most recent issue of the Journal of Managerial Psychology, the first attempt to examine the correlation between bullying and job performance. It’s an important next step in understanding what appears to be a growing problem—or at least one that’s being discussed more often and openly—not least because it provides a new framework for understanding a significant aspect of the bullying dynamic.

It might be a little counter-intuitive to imagine workplace bullies earning positive performance reviews, if only because we think of (and tend to characterize) bullies as cruel and angry individuals who target weaker colleagues. But while the latter notion is undoubtedly accurate, and the former quite often so, it’s also true that for a bully to carry on for any length of time her or she must hold onto a job. To be sure, some bullies survive and thrive because their employers and/or managers aren’t focused enough on the problem (more than half of U.S. workplaces don’t even have an official bullying policy). But many if not most are allowed to keep abusing colleagues because their bosses aren’t aware of their behavior, either because it goes unreported (many victims are too frightened or embarrassed to draw attention to their plight) or because the bullies are good at masking their behavior and/or fooling their superiors.

That’s the focus of the JMP study, which was led by Darren C. Treadway of SUNY-Buffalo and Brooke A. Shaughnessy of the Technical University of Munich in Germany. The research  team analyzed dozens employees at a mental health organization—collecting data on behavior and job performance over two separate time periods—to capture the individual differences and social perception of bullies. They  were especially interested in looking at bullying through the academic lens of “social information processing,” which is basically the study of group knowledge and can include everything from wikis to reputation.

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The bottom line? A lot of bullies are keen analyzers and manipulators of social dynamics and reputations; they are highly political animals, with finely tuned antennae that allow them to identify and abuse their victims without anyone else noticing. “Due to their social competence,” the authors write, “[bullies] are able to strategically abuse coworkers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor.”

More galling, though, is the revelation that a significant portion of these politically “gifted” workplace thugs exercise their malevolent skills for fun and profit—that is, for their own career advancement: “Many bullies are very socially skilled,” the authors write, “and use their bullying behavior strategically to coerce others into providing them the resources needed to achieve their work-related objectives.”

It’s an especially insidious cycle: The results of workplace intimidation, harassment, and other forms of bullying are often enough jobs well done, which lead not to rebuke but rather to strong reviews, pay raises, and even promotions. “Bullies often leverage the fear and intimidation of their behavior to achieve their personal goals and improve their job performance,” the authors reiterate.

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Any of those outcomes, of course, only serve to embolden the bully and imperil the bullied, which is yet another reason for victims to speak out. If they don’t take action—as difficult or scary as it can be—the bully in the next cubicle or work station could soon enough be in charge.