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 escape 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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