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Workplace bullying

Why bullies thrive at work

By KEVIN MANNE

Published May 17, 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
School of Management
Darren Treadway

Darren Treadway

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 School of Management.

Published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, the study found that some workplace bullies have high social skills that they use to strategically abuse their co-workers, 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, associate professor of organization and human resources in the School of Management.

Workplace bullying is pervasive. The study notes 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 show 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, postdoctoral researcher for the chair of Research and Science Management, Technical University of Munich School of Management, Germany; Jacob Breland, assistant professor of management, Youngstown State University; Jun Yang, assistant professor, Renmin University of China, China; and Maiyuwai Reeves, PhD student, Department of Organization and Human Resources, UB School of Management.