What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest?


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Over the years I’ve heard and read countless stories about severe workplace bullying and related behaviors. It’s not pretty stuff. But after a while, patterns emerge, including those associated with perpetrators of the mistreatment.

One of my central observations is that many of the “best” workplace abusers — the ones who get their prey and continually evade being held responsible — are calculating, committed, and smart planners. With task-oriented surgical precision and detachment, they plot and scheme. Like the serial killer who manages to evade capture, they’re usually a step or three ahead of everyone else, with a scary sense of anticipation.

Some enable themselves by occupying positions where they can devote “quality time” to planning. While others do real work or otherwise conduct their lives, the expert bullies use chunks of time to assess and strategize, often obsessively so. They also find ways to access, control, and manipulate information and resources to which others, especially their targets, are not privy. They build relationships and curry favor with various players who may later help them down the road.

In larger organizations, this often means that they need sponsors who enable them or at least let them have free reign. However, in smaller, grassroots organizations, or in those with diffuse power structures, they simply occupy the void while no one else notices.

I won’t attempt to match this proclivity for careful planning against the clinical criteria for conditions such as antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy, sociopathy) or narcissistic personality disorder. While I have no doubt that many of the worst workplace bullies fall into these categories, I’m focusing here on one behavioral trait.

Indeed, I’m simply making connections grounded in years of immersion in this realm: Among those who bully and abuse others at work, the expert planners often rank in the vanguard.


This post was revised in July 2019.

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9 responses

    • You are right on target with this information on adult bullys. It does appear to be obsessive…like a compulsion to targat someone who may be vulnerable or whom the bully creates a situation which places the target in a vulnerable position by maneuvering key individuals around him/her for support while members of this group take aim using various strategies to inflict harm be it emotional, physical, or psychological. Some how they have learned these strategies and feel a deep compulsion to exercise them. The closest parallel to the underlying psychology of these adult bullys is from reviewing literature on middle school bullys. What was shocking about this is the behaviors mirror those of their adult counterparts. There also deep psychological issues underlying these behaviors. Compulsion, desire to inflict harm, lack of remorse, and other disturbing problems.

      • Hi David, this is excellent, so familiar, so useful. I would love to discuss it further with you regarding best defenses.

        Priscilla, your comments are very helpful, very salient.

  1. Thank you for bringing light to this area. As a social worker for over 26 yrs of experience, I have experienced bullying in my profession, not just by fellow social workers, but many other helping professionals; psychiatric nurse, pastor and my worst experience by a seasoned psychologist. I named those who bully (trained in the helping profession) “Expert Bullies” when I started teaching workshops about bullying experienced by helping profession. Fact is, these educated and highly trained professionals have access to the best of ammunition used to threaten, manipulate, conspire against and the skill to time it just right = No witnesses, create fake notes or complaints, and set it so the target looks crazy. On the flip side of this are the targets who are also educated and trained helping professionals who get to see the train coming a long way back. The impact is even more tragic. Who would believe that people with these letters after their names would be so cynical?

    No one, this is train #2. Final blow….they often have HR reps with their own power issues backing them.

  2. The targets of my bully boss were pons in her calculated, planned attacks. There were patterns of days when she would attack, but in addition when you were at your lowest (parent in the hospital for example) she always gave you an extra kick in the stomach in efforts to push you mentally over the edge. At the beginning of every school year, the staff knew who was in the bulls eye. Her lieutenents were prepped, landmines set and situations choreographed early for the year. This is why the adjective to describe her was “evil”. She never lead the school; rather was passionate about felling the most competent teachers. She was obsessed and it became the game and bonding activity of her mob- who were also hand picked for being unqualified and underperforming thus non-threatening to her and they shared her jealousy and envy of the beloved and respected teachers. The phrase used by colleagues after a target broke was “And then they came for me”.

  3. Hi David, this is excellent, so familiar, so useful. I would love to discuss it further with you regarding best defenses.

    • Hi Janet, thanks for your good words. I wish I had an easy-made set of best defenses. Instead, somewhat reluctantly but realistically, I advise people to “think like a sociopath” in terms of anticipating what a skilled workplace abuser will do.

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