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Why bullies thrive at work

Photo illustration of bullying behavior in the workplace.

By: Kevin Manne

Release Date: May 16, 2013

“Many bullies can be seen as charming and friendly, but they are highly destructive and can manipulate others into providing them with the resources they need to get ahead.”
Darren Treadway, associate professor of organization and human resources
Photo of Darren Treadway.
High-Res Image

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Despite resistance to bullying from both employers and employees, many workplace bullies achieve high levels of career success, according to a new study from the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, the study found that some workplace bullies have high social skill that they use to strategically abuse their coworkers, yet still receive positive evaluations from their supervisors.

The study marks the first attempt to measure the relationship between being a bully and job performance. It offers an initial explanation of why bullies thrive in the workplace despite organizational attempts to sanction bullying behaviors.

“Many bullies can be seen as charming and friendly, but they are highly destructive and can manipulate others into providing them with the resources they need to get ahead,” says the study’s co-author, Darren Treadway, PhD, associate professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management.

Workplace bullying is pervasive. The study has noted that as many as half of all employees in the U.S. have witnessed bullying at work, and 35 percent have been the target of bullying.

The researchers collected behavioral and job performance data over two time periods from 54 employees at a mental health organization in the northwest U.S. to capture the individual differences and social perception of bullies in the workplace. Regression analyses were conducted on this sample size, consistent with previous studies.

The results showed a strong correlation between bullying, social competence and positive job evaluations. 

Treadway says the findings are relevant beyond the health services industry and that companies should limit bullying behavior while rewarding high-performing employees.

“Employers can work to reduce the prevalence by finding organizationally appropriate ways for employees to achieve their goals, by incorporating measures of civility and camaraderie into performance evaluations, and by helping staff to develop the skills needed to manage bullies,” says Treadway.

Future research, he says, should focus on how bullies select their victims. 

Treadway collaborated on the study with Brooke Shaughnessy, PhD, postdoctoral researcher for the chair of Research and Science Management, Technical University of Munich School of Management, Germany; Jacob Breland, PhD, assistant professor of management, Youngstown State University; Jun Yang, assistant professor, Renmin University of China, China; and Maiyuwai Reeves, PhD student, UB School of Management Department of Organization and Human Resources.

The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, the Financial Times, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit mgt.buffalo.edu.

Media Contact Information

Kevin Manne
Assistant Director of Communications
School of Management
Tel: 716-645-5238
kjmanne@buffalo.edu