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I Think I Finally Found the Bully’s Playbook
As a bullying researcher, I have collected hundreds of stories of workplace abuse survivors from across the globe. Despite diverse industries, circumstances, and geographic locations, the stories are eerily similar, as if the bullies were all working out of the same playbook. When I listen to targets’ stories, I often wonder if there is an underground conference, only the worst offenders are privy to, full of sessions with catchy titles such as How to Get Your Colleagues to Quit in 30 Days or Less and Ruin Their Reputation with Rumors. However, despite my digging, I was never able to find the origin story of the tactics so many workplace abusers lean on to gain power.
That is until earlier this week, when I was reading an article that referenced Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, which draws comparisons between today’s power wranglers and historical figures, all out for a winner take all moment at the podium. As academics, we are taught to never rely on another author’s interpretation of a work, and instead read the original piece in its entirety before making a judgment or drawing an assumption. So that is exactly what I did, in addition to listening to several podcasts in which Greene was interviewed. For me, it was a cataclysmic, lightbulb moment, a discovery so many had already discovered, throughout the book’s 20+ year legacy and best seller status, including some prisons, who banned the book in their libraries, fearing its incendiary nature. Though researchers have criticized the book for being didactic and lacking an evidential basis, many of the laws are reflective of salient themes in my own and others’ research on workplace bullying. Let’s take a look:
Law 3: Conceal Your Intention: Bullies keep it on the down-low, presenting themselves as helpers, confidants, and mentors in a ruse to get the target to shift out of high alert and make the most gracious assumptions about the person pushing them toward the trap door.
Law 7: Get Others to Do the Work for You, but Always Take the Credit: Bullies often lack the content and technical expertise to get the job done, but cunningly cover their incompetence by offloading their work on subordinates and then gallantly claiming ownership for a job well done.
Law 14: Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy: Bullies present themselves as a reliable pal, disclosing just enough personal information to encourage the target to drop her defenses and divulge private knowledge or ambitions that the bully will later use as weapons to destroy her.
Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally: Bullies often begin their campaign with petty rumors and schoolyard sabotage, yet they are not content with bumping and bruising their target. Instead, research shows that most bullies will not retreat until the target is pushed out of his job and his reputation is completely annihilated.
Law 17: Keep Others in Suspended Terror, Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability: Bullies create a tilt-a-whirl existence in which they praise and uplift the target one day and then shift into attack and destroy mode the next, leaving the target drowning in anxiety, never knowing when the floor will drop.
Law 26: Keep Your Hands Clean - Do Not Do Dirty Work Yourself: Bullies recruit shapeshifters to do their bidding, directing them to carry out an elaborate plan while allowing the bullies to maintain immunity status despite their role as puppeteers pulling the strings.
Law 33: Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew: It is not usual for bullies to initially ingratiate themselves to the target, elisting her trust, so that she will disclose her weaknesses, which the bully later weaponizes against her.
Law 35: Master the Art of Timing: Bullies will use a precipitating event to stir unrest in the work community and garner followers to participate in the mobbing. For example, a marketing executive creates a successful ad campaign that inadvertently steals the spotlight from the bully boss. To capitalize on that event, the bully spreads rumors that the marketing executive stole the bully’s idea, and hence cannot be trusted to collaborate with and must be shunned.
Law 39: Stir Up Waters to Catch Fish: Bullies use rumors, sabotage, and exclusion to morally wound the target. Over time these tactics degrade the target’s mental health to such a degree that he may appear emotional or unwell. After secretly firing the weapons that resulted in the target’s wounding, the bully will use the target’s legitimate emotional response as proof that he is unfit for the job.
Law 42: Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep Will Scatter: Unfortunately, in workplace bullying cases, bystanders rarely become upstanders. On the contrary, when the target’s trusted colleagues stand witness to the bully's abuse, they will often join ranks with the bully in an effort to thwart similar attacks.
Though Greene’s 10 laws above accurately capture the common behaviors of workplace bullies, his first law serves as a foreboding warning to high achievers and creatives working for a boss whose insecurities direct her actions.
“Law 1: Never Outshine the Master: Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please or impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talent or you might accomplish the opposite - inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are, and you will attain the heights of power.”
I’m not sure about you, but I don’t want to work in a culture that requires mediocrity as a precondition for job security, for surely, such organizations will fail to meet their grand mission when employees are required to play small.
This week I am reading:
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