The Passive Bully Boss – Part ONE – Is that your management style?

Mr Burns - Passive Bully Boss Image

Bullying.  Not your style, right?

Everyone knows that bullying behaviours are wrong; whether in school yards, cyber-space, workplaces or even in board rooms.  It’s talked about, flushed out, investigated, and generally not tolerated these days [except perhaps in the political arena, which the vast majority of voting Australian’s find shameful].

These days, most workplaces have some sort of bullying policy and complaints procedure in their workplace health and safety kit, as the impact on victims of bullying can be quite damaging physically, psychologically, and financially detrimental for the organisation.  While that may assist in addressing bullying that is blatantly obvious, aggressive and loud, and if it’s reported, and there are witnesses; what about the more subtler forms of bullying?

Passive bullying … sometimes referred to as passive aggressive behaviour or silenced bullying, is potentially a far more sinister form of deliberately mind-screwing with the victim.  Less direct and less openly noticeable to others, it’s that silent chipping away of a person’s confidence, an undermining campaign that may include character assassination, exclusion, sidelining, withdrawing role responsibilities, and sometimes verbal abuse behind closed doors [no witnesses].

What makes this worse than the overt and aggressive form of bullying, is that it’s often not clearly or certainly identified from small, isolated incidents.  The victim is often unaware of why they feel more anxious or stressed, until they piece together a pattern of successively undermining or belittling incidents.  This joining of the dots approach makes it harder to prove, find witnesses, or get support for. Just the way the passive bully likes it; clever and careful to leave no evidential trail. Still not you, right?

Why am I blogging on about this? Because in recent years, in my role as a corporate consultant and leadership coach, working with Executive Leaders and HR Managers to improve workplace culture, I am appalled at how common this behaviour is within workplaces, and how little is being done to address this; both internally – within the organisations, and externally – by government agencies.

So, why doesn’t the CEO, Leader, Manager, or Boss do something about this … you may well ask? I’m immensely disappointed and saddened to report that from my recent observations and personal experience, it is in fact ‘the boss’ that IS the passive bully – the leader of such unacceptable behaviour. The cause of a toxic culture where passive bullying is role modelled, begrudgingly accepted, and sadly, emulated down the ranks.

Even worse than this revelation, is the fact that too many either don’t see anything wrong with this behaviour [it’s not ‘real bullying’], or for some it’s become so ‘normal’ and accepted that they don’t know they are doing it or the negative impact it is having on others.

Step one to addressing this, is to educate others in identifying passive bullying; naming the unacceptable behaviour. Making it easier to join those dots and recognise the subtle signs.

Could this be happening in your workplace?  To you or a colleague?  Or are these behaviours part of your own management style kit?

Try our checklist.

  • Silent treatment towards an individual …

Example: ignore their requests for meetings, ignore their emails, no attempt to establish effective working relationship with them.

  • Marginalising and ostracising an individual …

Example:  keeping them on the outer, not including them in team or project discussions, not passing on crucial information that enables them to do their role well.

  • Undermining campaign against an individual …

Example: talking negatively about them to others or questioning others about their ability, reducing their responsibilities, or giving their work to others.

  • Character assassination …

Example: defaming their name or capabilities to deliberately damage their reputation with others, and reduce career progression opportunities

  •  Sidelining from their ‘normal’ duties or project responsibilities …

Example: project or role tasks taken away and given to others for no relevant or apparent reason

  • Closed door direct verbal abuse …

Example: deliberate verbal assaults, face to face or by phone, but out of ear-shot of others [easily denied later]

  •  Avoidance of collaboration opportunities …

Example: Obstructs any opportunity for others to shine, feels threatened by others with different, better, more innovative ideas and solutions.

  • Targeting of high performers …

Example:  Feels threatened by high performers and uses the above behaviours to keep others ‘in their place’, so as not to show up their own levels of incompetence.

  • Avoidance of putting anything in writing …

Example: Opts for verbal interactions to avoid promising or commitment to anything [easier to deny – he said / she said]

  • Avoidance of clarity of expectations …

Example: Avoids formalising job contracts, role descriptions, performance reviews, creating deliberate uncertainty and insecurity of others, as a bargaining threat.

  • Belief that the position provides legitimate power …

Example: Right to do [all of the above] as ‘the boss’.

  • Sense of superior entitlement …

Example: rules that apply to others, don’t apply to ‘the boss’

Recognise any of these power play behaviours? Perhaps you have been accepting this as just some people’s management style. I mean, one or two of these behaviours exercised ‘lightly’ and occasionally, surely is not being a serial passive bully boss?

True, to a point.  One of these subtle behaviours in isolation, may not ring the same alarm bells as the loud, aggressive, obvious bully boss.  However, when these unreasonable behaviours happen repeatedly and intentionally against someone to cause distress and make them fell less powerful or helpless, [often with the intent to push them to resign], that fits the nationally accepted definition of bullying [passive or otherwise].

In PART TWO, I will share what drives or motivates the ‘passive bully boss’ to behave in that way;  from my own personal observations of behavioural styles, research and recent successful Australian cases against passive bully bosses.

Wrong is always wrong, even if others get away with it.  
Standing up to do what’s right is always the right thing to do.

I wish you the clarity to know the difference, and the courage to stand up to such inappropriate behaviours.

For further definition outlines and check-lists, visit the Fair Work Commission website.

Written by Jilinda Lee … Leadership Coach, OD Strategist, Writer, Speaker … Director of Workforce Vitality and passionate advocate for ethical, fair and inclusive leadership practices.

If you need help to develop better leadership practices in your organisation, or personal development, contact Jilinda for a free 30 minute consultation.


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