The collateral damage bully

By | 2015/01/15

When we think of workplace bullying, there’s a few “classic” styles we tend to concentrate on, or that immediately come to mind, such as:

  • The coworker intent on causing you grief to make him or herself look better
  • The boss with a grudge
  • The coworker with a grudge

These are easier to spot, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only styles. For instance, sexual harassment is a form of bullying; it’s just sexual harassment in and of itself is far worse than standard bullying so the more precise label sticks, for good reason.

There’s another type of bully who is more insidious though – the collateral damage bully. Like all bullies, this sort of workplace bully only succeeds because others around the bully who could put a stop to it don’t. Like all enablers, they fall into one of four categories of don’t caredon’t noticedon’t believe, or encourage.

The collateral damage bully is going to be an empire builder. Someone who has a personal fiefdom within the organisation and does his or her best to protect it. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll stick to his from now on. Feel free to read “he or she”, “his or hers” at any point…)

The collateral damage bully directly has it in for peer managers, because peer managers might jeopardise his empire. Since the manager above the bully falls into one of the enablement categories, the empire builder gets to carry out his campaign against the other managers. Sometimes you see this at work when you have a single manager who remains in his position for a very long time, while peer managers quickly come and go. They quickly come and go because they’re not given a chance.

iStock Puppeteer

In such situations, the focus is usually on the conflict caused between the empire builder and the peer managers, but what’s not as understood or appreciated is the collateral damage caused by the bully on the staff of the managers who aren’t succeeding against Mr or Ms Fiefdom. It’s like looking at the bit of the iceberg poking up out of the water and thinking, That’s not that bad.

So while the bully campaigns against peer managers, the staff of the peer managers suffer. Their performance appraisals are never acted on because there’s always a new manager coming in who has to start from scratch again. They’re actively blocked from being assisted by members of the bully’s team because doing so makes opposing empires (from the bully’s perspective) look weak and unhelpful to the company. Or the bully’s team becomes highly proficient because they have a permanent manager actively fighting for training budget, while the skills of peer teams atrophy because the bully encourages training budget transfers when there’s a gap between managers.

And so on.

The collateral damage bully doesn’t care. As long as his empire is protected, as long as he has the ear of the managers above, the collateral damage bully is happy. And the collateral damage employees? Well, they’re just simply in the wrong team.

Like all bullies, when confronted the collateral damage bully will have a wealth of reasons and excuses as to why nothing out of the ordinary is happening. And what’s worse, in a collateral damage situation, he’ll be more justified in saying so. It’s not a direct conflict, after all. Further, because he’s gotten away with it for so long, his managers will be disinclined to care because, after all, the people in the bully’s team quite like him. But of course they like him: they’re in the right team.

Empire builders aren’t bad for an organisation just because of their attitudes towards fiefdom protection, but they’re also equally bad for an organisation on the basis of the morale and career development problems they cause employees in peer departments.

Direct or indirect, it’s still bullying. So maybe empire builders should be watched carefully – not because they don’t have the big picture in mind, but because they’re hurting people just out of their line of sight.