How to spot a workplace bully: It’s the person with ‘high unhealthy’ self-esteem

They can have a split personality: seeming virtuous, but vindictive and self-righteous

There is no one type of person who gets bullied – it can happen to anyone. When it comes to the bully, however, there is a type.

“The main thing is the Jekyll-and-Hyde dimension, the split personality,” says Jacinta Kitt, an expert in the organisational environment. “They are often paragons of virtue in terms of how they portray themselves but they manifest to the person they are targeting as vindictive, self-righteous and totally lacking in empathy.”

How do I spot one?
The tactics of a bully are well established. They are often subtle and insidious. "It's isolating and excluding you, cutting across you mid-sentence, not allowing you to contribute at meetings, not talking to you as much whilst giving exaggerated recognition to others," says Kitt.

A bully will examine your work with the specific purpose of finding flaws, she says. “The criticisms are generally not valid and are spurious. Others sometimes don’t see it. But it starts to creep up on you, this awful feeling that you are nothing and nobody.”


What's their motivation?
It can stem from faulty self-esteem, says Kitt. "They manifest as being competent and confident and being in charge of everything, but in terms of self-esteem, they have what is called 'high unhealthy' self-esteem. It's unhealthy because it's conceited. In order to maintain that self-esteem, they must put down anyone that might show them up.

“They will do anything not to be exposed. They torment and they disempower good people because good people threaten them. They are threatened by competence and confidence.”

Where do they work?
While bullying can come from an individual and is usually top down, it is often part of a wider organisational dynamic, says Kitt.

“For these organisations, human relations are peripheral to effectiveness. A person might be good at their job and getting the results, but that’s half of it. Because the bully lacks collegiality and consultation, people don’t share ideas because they are fearful. A bully doesn’t get the best out of people, so the organisation is missing out on this work.”

You find bullies in organisations that hire people solely for their “human capital”, which is their qualifications and experience only, says Kitt.

How do they get away with it?
A bully often cultivates inadvertent co-conspirators, says Kitt. "They often hire people who lack confidence and lack competence. These people come in, they get elevated beyond their ability and so are indebted to the bully. They keep an eye on things for the bully, they back up what the bully says, they are unquestioning allies."

By hiring people less competent than them, they surround themselves with grateful allies, lowering their risk of exposure, she says.

Where don't they work?
Companies where bullying is unlikely to thrive hire and promote those with "psychological capital", says Kitt. A bully has no hope of succeeding here.

“It means having a positive disposition, being able to bring people with you and knowing you are only as good as the empowered team around you.”