Communication and how it contributes to bullying behaviours

I have throughout my working life experienced a number of the above scenarios, as have those from minority groups I have spoken to over the past several years. This article, however, is not about anyone specifically. I am going to include these examples, though, as ‘real life’ scenarios that can and do occur in a workplace.

Eye Contact

Making and sustaining eye contact is an integral component to successive and inclusive communication. While it is frowned on in some cultures, and this must be kept in mind when interacting with people from different backgrounds, it is not viewed negatively in Australia, and as such the lack of it is immediately noticeable.

A number of managers and peers I deal with regularly have a complete inability to make eye contact with me, but no issue doing so with their other peers. This is especially disorienting when it is someone you report to directly. A senior manager of my acquaintance would make it a habit of making and holding eye contact with my team mates, but look away from me, perhaps unconsciously, even when I was talking or answering a question.

“We give more attention to and make greater eye contact with people we consider our superiors and less to those whom we feel are inferior to us. All of us unconsciously play these power games with our eyes, even using eye contact to manipulate a social situation in order to get what we want.”[1]

There can be a gender angle to this too- men are noted to be more likely to use eye contact, or lack of it, to establish dominance in a situation. Women are more likely to notice the lack of eye contact-

“… lack of eye contact is the primary nonverbal cue that women mention when they tell me that they are not being “taken seriously by the opposite sex“-this is one of the top complaints women have about men. Janice, a corporate vice president, for instance, may perceive that when she is in a face-to-face interaction with her counterpart Ed, and he does not look at her, it’s because he doesn’t care about her message. This is understandable.”

The importance of eye contact in professional communication, at least in the West, cannot be overstated, and has been extensively researched.

 “Cultural respective eye contact is one of the main components of non-verbal communication,” Reiman explains. The ability to gaze at another while speaking denotes authority, confidence, and presence. “Studies suggest that holding eye contact while speaking has an enormous impact on your ability to persuade. Lack of eye contact often implies deception,” she says. When breaking eye contact, it is better to break off to the left or to the right, as looking down suggests insecurity.[2]

Body Language and nonverbal communication

This also interpolates into to body language. How people react physically to each other is a telling factor in how they view each other and how they perceive each others’ worth and importance (or lack thereof).

There are key examples of this. A former supervisor of mine had the terribly bad habit of rolling his eyes upward whenever he was asked something he didn’t like, or challenged on a statement or question he raised. Oddly enough, he wasn’t even aware he did it, but it was incredibly infuriating.

Whenever clarification was sought on a request or directive, he would roll his eyes and then begin to speak. This subtle but damaging form of non verbal communication of frustration and annoyance is counter productive to effective business operation, and damages the integrity of team relationships, and manager-employee relationships.

Another example is the ‘crossed arms’ approach. Another manager I worked for had a habit, in meetings, of sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms when challenged or faced with a question or suggestion he didn’t like. This can often be accompanied by the eyeroll. Both are bullying behaviours. To accentuate the point, he would stick his legs out and cross them as he leaned back in his chair.

This would also extend to how he entered and exited the meeting, to establish his own need to feel dominant in the proceedings. A meeting would be called, and he would always, always enter 5 minutes late, on his phone, to assure everyone how ‘busy’ he was. He would sit in the corner furthest from the speaker and assume his default pose, described above.

This had a twofold effect of stating, firstly, that what he had going on was more important than this meeting, and thus as a secondary effect stated without being spelled out that he was more important than the other attendees in the meeting, and thus was automatically worthy of respect.

This sort of behaviour, in the right audience, can create an undeserved or illusory sense of authority or expertise that covers up the actual relevance or status of the person performing it.

In this manager’s case, his own technical knowledge and expertise was severely limited compared to his peers and subordinates, so he compensated for his own feelings of insecurity by projecting a carefully constructed image of being ‘above it all’ and far too busy to worry about trivialities, and many personality types react to this by intrinsically accepting the behaviour as proof of the person’s authority and expertise.

“Walk around like you own the joint. Works for me!”

Doctor Who

Verbal Tools

To continue with this case study, the tactics to establish dominance through nonverbal bullying feeds into verbal communication as well. Much of the tactics of the latter feed off gender politics and traditional gender roles, and a skilled bully will manipulate these to their advantage.

It is important to note at this stage that while the behaviour I have discussed so far can seem like it would be repellent if you faced it personally, many of the managers who practice this style of dominance can actually be quite charismatic and even likeable, as long as they do not feel threatened.

Bullying behaviour is often a response to a bully’s own sense of insecurity and inadequacy, particularly in the face of the changing dynamics of the modern workforce. The promotion of women has caused many older male managers to react sharply and negatively, and their resistance to the skills and capacities of others manifests itself in the expressions of aggression outlined in these case studies.

The first tactic is to attack the credibility of the speaker. This, when tied into the previous point around gender interaction, has when performed by a male been deemed ‘mansplaining’. This is a somewhat loaded term with sexist connotations, and it should not be inferred that only men engage in this patronizing behaviour, and that women are not capable of bullying communication. Generally, however, bullying by women, particularly against other women, takes a markedly different form.


On mansplaining-

I had a male gynecologist once mansplain to me about cervical pain I was experiencing after sex. He said, ‘It’s very unlikely that you can sense cervical pain that specifically. You might be mistaking gastrointestinal distress…’ He shut up when I used extremely graphic hand gestures to pinpoint where and when my pain was occurring.”[3]

This type of behaviour is particularly prevalent in STEM fields[4].

This is an exceedingly common occurrence, however, in traditionally male dominated workplaces like our own, where the inclusion of women in management positions threatens traditionally held notions of gender roles and proprietary. The assumption that certain fields are intrinsically ‘male’, such as engineering and transport services, can mean male managers feel threatened with women intruding on what they see as their space.

This is damaging but a very real problem that needs addressing. In my own case I have seen my own immediate managers face it from their peers and even their subordinates on a daily basis, in meetings, in even casual discussions, and worse, the perpetrator doesn’t often even realize they are doing it.

In a meeting including my case study from above, his general approach when questioned on his role or expertise is to either double down on the passive aggressiveness, i.e., arms crossed, stare at the floor, or at his phone in annoyance, or to go to the other extreme. This involves an exasperated sigh, and then “Look, it works like this…” big arm gestures, open hands… look at me I am all conciliatory… Slow and steady tone and pace, simple words, dumb it down for the lady…

This isn’t restricted by gender though, men can ‘mansplain’ even to other men, and do so frequently, particularly when their authority is challenged, they tend to devolve to pack wolf mentality, and brawl over who is alpha, which can be amusing to witness but can also be incredibly damaging to team performance and end results for the customer.

The other frequent triggers for traditional management are related to age, and qualifications. When faced with a younger, more educated professional of any gender, the passive aggressive or dismissive communication comes to the forefront. This takes the form of all of the above examples, including eye contact restrictions, dismissive body language, speaking patterns, and, if sufficiently threatened, actual aggression.

Remember that personal insecurity feeds into feelings of inadequacy that are triggered when faced with someone who demonstrates skill or intelligence to a level that may threaten to expose the inadequacies of the bully.

This can be inadequacies both real and imagined. Let’s go back to my case study, an old school manager who went straight from high school into the business and worked his way up over 30 years to his current senior position. This is a man who perceives his worth primarily by the longevity of his career, and is dismissive and patronising to degree qualified professionals because he feels threatened by them.

He would preface his response to every situation where his authority or knowledge was challenged with “Well, I have been here for 30 years, and you are wrong…” The logic here being it was the one thing he could never be beaten on. Sure, other employees could be smarter, younger, more creative, more adaptable, more qualified, but he would cling tenaciously to the one thing that he felt was inviolable- his tenure.

Dangerous and destructive. Worse, it is entirely possible that he brings a tremendous amount of experience from his 30 years that would be gratefully accepted by the new employees, and could embrace in turn their own skills and education, to bring innovation and change into the workforce. However, instead, he decides to bunker down and cling to his traditions.

Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.”

I have seen situations where he would take reams of carefully analysed and constructed data and toss them aside, saying simply “I don’t need ‘reports’ to tell me how to do my job’. Translation- ‘I don’t understand this and feel threatened by it, so I will disregard it to the detriment of my business unit’.

This will have only two possible outcomes, both negative. First, the manager gets their way and protects their turf, and rejects or expels all advocates of change, to the severe detriment of the business. Second, HR or senior management recognizes the blockage and removes him, and his knowledge and expertise is lost to the business. The latter, however, is in the long term infinitely more desirable.

Knowledge can be acquired, as can experience, but toxic mentalities like the above are best dealt with through removal, as re-education is futile and will ultimately fail, plus it will actually make the manager miserable as you force him hopelessly out of his comfort zone.


The Other Side

In case anyone thinks this is a decidedly one sided attack on the male gender, there is substantial evidence on widespread and pervasive women, particularly women on women, bullying in the workplace as well.

“Having spent decades working in psychology, a field heavily populated by highly competitive women, I had certainly seen the queen bee before: The female boss who not only has zero interest in fostering the careers of women who aim to follow in her footsteps, but who might even actively attempt to cut them off at the pass.”[5]

The ‘Queen Bee’ syndrome is still alive and well in today’s modern workplace. From the study in the 1970s-

“They found that women who achieved success in male-dominated environments were at times likely to oppose the rise of other women. This occurred, they argued, largely because the patriarchal culture of work encouraged the few women who rose to the top to become obsessed with maintaining their authority.

While you would think that this behaviour vanishes in a more modern workplace, nothing could be further from the truth-

“A 2011 survey of 1,000 working women by the American Management Association found that 95% of them believed they were undermined by another woman at some point in their careers. According to a 2008 University of Toronto study of nearly 1,800 U.S. employees, women working under female supervisors reported more symptoms of physical and psychological stress than did those working under male supervisors.”[6]

Interesting to note is that much of this behaviour, like many workplace behaviours, mimics those of the school yard.

“As the old male-dominated workplace has been transformed, many have hoped that the rise of female leaders would create a softer, gentler kind of office, based on communication, team building and personal development. But instead, some women are finding their professional lives dominated by high school “mean girls” all grown up: women with something to prove and a precarious sense of security.”

Like male bullies, much of the behaviour of women bullies is rooted in their own personal insecurities and lack of self-confidence or self-esteem.It is entirely possible that this behaviour is rooted in misogyny they faced in their own careers. The first senior manager I worked under at a major, internationally known finance company, spoke often to me of her experiences in the 1980s in the banking and financial sector.

Accusations of sleeping her way to the top, of being groped and propositioned, at being denied promotions time and again, to being damaged to the point where she became incredibly bitter and battle hardened, and by her own admission envious of how easy women entering the workforce now have it compared to her own experience.

From this experience, she became a fierce bully, a known and recognized ‘career killer’ and backstabber, and her own professional development stagnated, as she continued to wallow in her own self pity, ruthlessly removing any and all who threatened her dominance, in much the same way my previous case study did in his own shop.

Different genders, same root cause. Self-esteem and jealousy. These sorts of personalities have their own incredibly broken internal barometers on ‘right and wrong’, on what is ‘fair’ and what is ‘unfair’. They feel completely justified in lashing out and cutting newcomers off at the legs because, hell, they paid their dues, who did these uppity newcomers think they were?

However, not all women, or men for that matter, can invoke either excuse for their behaviours.

“You can forget counting on the bonds of “sisterhood” in the workplace to help you get ahead because women are more likely to back-stab and undermine other women than are men. In fact, multiple studies show that female bosses can be some of the most difficult to work for, much less advance under, especially if you are also a woman. Male “bully” bosses are less discriminatory than women who single out women and tend to dole out unfair practices regardless of gender.[7] “

It may, however, ultimately prove to be futile working out how this situation occurs.

“Despite an available plethora of opinions as to why powerful women undermine other women, the bottom line is that it really does not matter what broad statistics report when you are the one being bullied or undervalued. Women are human and human motives are always unique to each individual and rather than waste time trying to understand your boss, focus on solutions on how to work around her if you cannot work with her.”

Sound advice. Given the amount of toxic managers in this workplace, and others like it, of both genders, the better approach is to spend less time focusing on why and more on how to deal with it.










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