In order to understand bullying risk, there are some fundamental questions that need to be answered in regards to bullying harassment and discrimination . The big ones include:
- What is Bullying?
- What are the types of Bullying?
- When does it occur?
- Why does it occur?
- Who is the Bully?
- Who is the Victim?
In this article I want to explore why high performing employees are quite often the target of bullying as opposed to those performing at lower levels. By understanding why, it can help employers proactively assess their workplaces and more efficiently front-run possible bullying claims and unreasonable behaviour in the future.
I think there is a common perception that the more vulnerable, weak and poor performers are at greater risk of being targeted by a workplace bully. This is certainly true in many instances because they can be challenging to deal with, absorb a lot of management time (complaints, quality assurance etc) and can cause resentment from both peers and line management for lacking contribution. Bullies are also inherently weak, so to find someone they can “beat” mitigates in favour of this theory.
However, are we then entitled to conclude that high performers are then more likely to be immune from bullying? Don’t they always get the red carpet treatment and given every opportunity to excel?
The answer is – “not always” and it very much depends on the supervisor to whom they report. Star performers are at high risk of being bullied by bosses high with social dominance orientation (SDO).
SDO Theory postulates that some people view the world as a competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of winners and losers. Consequently, not only are they drawn to institutions and professions that enhance and reinforce social hierarchies, but they tend to discriminate against individuals from lower-status groups and reinforce inequality between groups in order to sustain their power, status, and wealth. (Law firms, hospitals, armed and emergency services immediately spring to mind.)
High performers represent a threat to supervisors (who probably call themselves “superiors”) who place a high value on their dominant position in the hierarchy. To such a boss, an up-and-comer who operates beyond expectations might replace them, steal their thunder, and draw attention from senior personnel from whom the bully craves.
(Note: This is not to discount the risk of peer-to-peer bullying, but fellow employees do not have the leverage, latitude or tactical opportunities afforded to those in management positions. Nor should other factors not related to SDO be ignored, such as lack of skills, nepotism, corruption or conflicts of interest etc.)
To make matters worse, the majority of all SDO types are narcissistic. Those with narcissistic personality disorders or traits have predictable patterns of behaviour that can easily transcend into bullying. Proactive employers must also be on the look-out for these traits.
Now, whilst you can mitigate bullying behavior by training, coaching and/or providing consequences, the reality is these characteristics are part of their DNA and need to be managed with more structure, screened out at the start or terminated.
Otherwise, businesses face the risk of a steady procession of their most valued assets leaving for greener pastures with all the associated consequences.