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Bullying – A new approach to tackling bullying at work

Have you ever worked with someone who has been bullied? Or really thought about what is going on in many workplaces today?


Let’s just step into their shoes for a moment… Try and imagine you can’t eat or sleep because your fear is so high.  Imagine waking to realise today is another work day and you can’t escape.  You spend your day tense and on high alert not knowing when, where or how it will happen today.  When you tried to report it, your manager told you to stop whinging and get back to work. Imagine feeling defenceless, helpless, frustrated, worthless, alone and scared every day. If this was your everyday work life, how long would you stick it out? How long before you left your job or considered taking your own life?  Just imagine what it must be like to be one of the five people bullied at work every year – subjected to an assortment of constant criticism, haranguing, unreasonable demands, blaming, passive-aggression, threats, sabotage, isolation, manipulation and gaslighting.  Or perhaps it’s easier to imagine being the one in five that witness workplace bullying and rarely do anything about it? Or maybe you feel for the manager who just doesn’t know what to do.  Or perhaps you identify best with being the bully as the target is just getting what they deserve? Or that it’s nature’s way of weeding out the weak and whiney?  Or perhaps you choose to be oblivious to it going on?

Bullying is a major problem in our work places, one that can no longer be ignored.  We want to share our thoughts on how coaches can step in and make a real difference in this space,to create a climate where everybody feels physically and emotionally safe.  To bring kindness, compassion, courage, dignity, self-respect and wisdom into a workplace near you.


The facts:

  • 19% of Americans are bullied, another 19% witness it (and figures are similar across the globe)
  • 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace
  • 70% of perpetrators are men (although the behaviours of women can often play out more subtly making investigation more challenging)
  • 60% of targets are women
  • 40% of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects
  • 29% of targets remain silent about their experiences
  • In 25% of cases employers took no action when bullying was reported
  • In 46% of cases after investigation no changes occurred
  • 23% of targets quit their job, 12% were forced out of their job and another 11% transferred, 8% were fired. That means close on 80% were no longer employed.[1]


 What is bullying?

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace Bullying is the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a target by a perpetrator(s). It’s not one bad day or one lost temper.  It is the persistent misuse of power, to intentionally humiliate, intimidate or manipulate a target.  It can be overt or covert, and be perpetrated by anyone in any position in an organisation..


How does bullying harm workers neurologically and physically?

Bullying can sabotage the growth of neurones, reduce connectivity in the brain (closely resembling the neurological changes by those who have been physically and sexually abused) and cause a wide range of debilitating mental, emotional and physical stress.  One five year study by Nielsen et al (2015) published in the American Journal of Public Health, showed that people who had been bullied were twice as likely to consider suicide.[2]In Sweden it is claimed that 10-15% of all suicides are due to bullying.[3]


Fig 1. Effects of bullying[4]

Many people have been bullied for a long time, some without recognising it.  Have you noticed any of your clients experiencing any of these symptoms?

While bullying behaviours may be aimed at one person, the devastating effects and toxicity it produces can spread throughout a team or whole organisation causing issues like high absenteeism, low morale and decreased productivity.  And, clearly from the evidence to date, there are no easy, quick fix solutions.  Managing bullying in the workplace requires a clear intention, clear boundaries and dedicated, persistent action to change behaviours and create a safe work environment for all.  We think it’s time to offer a new approach and make a real difference as coaches. 


Who are the bullies? 

Bullies seek to gain power, influence, or avoid trouble, by putting down a co-worker who appears to the bully to be a threat to the bully’s own success, or alternatively, an individual who is particularly susceptible to bullying.[5] Bullying is very rarely about anger.  It arises from feeling superior and seeing no value in selected individuals.

“Bullying is about contempt – a powerful feeling of dislike towards someone considered to be worthless, inferior or underserving of respect. Bullying is arrogance in action. Once people believe that someone is less than them they can harm them without feeling empathy, compassion or shame.” ~ Barbara Coloroso.  It is also about a target being seen as competent, capable and therefore a threat.

Bullies tend to have a Jekyll and Hyde manner of engaging with others; they are charming and even charismatic in one setting and as ruthless as a hardened criminal in another, crushing a threat by whatever means necessary (e.g. lying, cheating, manipulating, undermining and sabotage) – like a warped workplace politician.

Professor Boddy calls them Corporate Psychopaths; “to people they need to impress, the corporate psychopath’s image or façade almost never varies and those above them typically think of them as ‘star’ employees – marked for further promotion and advancement in the organisation.  To everyone else – especially those below the corporate psychopath – their true manipulative, bullying, ruthless, callous, uncaring, untruthful, parasitic and abusive personality soon becomes apparent… They typically bully for two main reasons: firstly, for predatory purposes; because they enjoy damaging people and their careers, and secondly, they do it to cause confusion around them enabling them to get ahead while everyone else is distracted by chaos.”

There is support for the theory that some bullies’ brains are wired to get a sadistic pleasure from picking on victims. A recent neuroscience study at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai showed bullying activates reward circuits in the aggressors.  As the brain registers all pleasures by releasing dopamine (whether from sex, chocolate, drugs or bullying) bullies actions create the same sort of buzz in the bullys’ brains as most us get from doing good deeds or eating chocolate.  Over time, the brain adapts and becomes accustomed to the pleasurable activity / substance and needs a bigger hit to give the individual pleasure.  Ultimately the compulsion to control others becomes like heroin to a drug addict.


So how do we as coaches recognise bullies / corporate psychopaths? 

Professor Boddy utilises the PM-MRV2 (Psychopathy Measure Management Research Version 2); a ten-item measure of psychopathic characteristics.  We suggest coaches use it as a guide to assess people who might be referred to them due to poor behaviours.  Look for:

  1. Superficial charm and apparent intelligence: They’re friendly and easy to talk to, agreeable, make a positive first impression and are apparently a genuine person who is socially at ease.
  2. Untruthful and insincere:They are convincing liars because of their apparent sincerity and honesty.
  3. Cheating personality:They fail to live up to promises, and deceive, seduce and desert others. They are good at organisational politics, claim the good work of others as their own and would probably steal, forge, commit adultery or fraud if they could get away with it.
  4. Totally egocentricand self-centred: they cannot love or care for others and only discuss love in intellectual terms. They are totally indifferent to the emotions or fate of their colleagues.
  5. No remorse about how their actions harm other employees: They deny responsibility for their own poor behaviour and accuse others of responsibility for failures that they themselves cause. They put their own career advancement above their colleagues.
  6. Emotionally shallow:They can readily demonstrate a show or display of emotion but without any true feeling. They cannot experience true sadness, woe, anger, grief, joy or despair and are indifferent to the troubles of others.
  7. Unresponsive to personal interactions:They don’t respond to kindness or trust in the ordinary manner. They can display superficial reactions but do not have a consistent appreciation for what others have done for them. They are indifferent to the feelings of others and can openly make fun of other people.
  8. Refuse to take responsibility for their own actions:While initially appearing to be reliable and dependable, they can then act unreliably and with no sense of responsibility or regard for any obligations to others.
  9. Calm, poised and apparently rational:They do not display neurotic or irrational characteristics. They are always poised and not anxious / worried even in troubling or upsetting circumstances which would disturb or upset most other people.
  10. Lack of self-blame and self-insight about own behaviour:They blame their troubles on other people with elaborate and subtle rationalisations. They do not think of blaming themselves, even when discovered in bizarre, dishonest or immoral situations that would promote despair or shame in other employees.[6]


Tips on how to coach a bully

 We believe the same level of care should be provided to the bully as the target to both increase self-awareness, modify their behaviour and help with issues like managing emotions, aggression, lack of confidence and low self esteem.  Our top five tips when working with the perpetrators of bullying are:

  1. Be clear on the desired outcomes of the coachee and that they are ecological for all involved.
  2. Assess their self awareness of behaviours and impact on others. We often use ‘Perceptual Positioning’, an NLP technique to enable people to see multiple perspectives in any situation.
  3. Decide whether it is appropriate to work with them and if they are willing and open to change.
  4. If they are open to change, establish the motivation behind their behaviours and work on resolving it in more ethical and positive ways. For example if they bully for pleasure, we suggest teaching them how to find pleasure in a more powerful, accessible and immediate way; this includes asking them to bring together a series of positive life experiences, anchoring their felt sense and stacking them into a single (anchored) resource that can be used any time they feel the urge to act negatively toward others.
  5. Teach mindfulness and emotional intelligence / relationship enhancing skills. We have had great results using simple exercises like those detailed in the book ‘Emotional Intelligence 2.0’ and compassionate communication exercises based on Mark Waldman’s work ‘Words can change your brain.’  These can be done with individuals or as workshops across entire organisations.


Who are the target’s of bullying?

Many people assume that the targets of workplace bullying, are like those we remember from school – the skinny / fat, non-athletic, quiet, nerdy, weak, different… type’s.  Dr Gary Namie’s[7] research showed that the targets of bullying, are generally not weak, or easy prey but instead independent, competent, well liked, kind, ethical and honest individuals.  In short, they are seen as a threat by the bully.

What makes an individual a target is an inability to successfully thwart the bullying because they either don’t fight back or confront the bully immediately.  As Gary say’s “this is not weakness – just reality…. Bullies eat nice people alive.”

According to WBI 2013 research the top reasons bullied individuals gave for being bullied were:

  1. The target’s refusal to be subservient, to not go along with being controlled (reported by 58%)
  2. The target’s superior competence or technical skill (56%)
  3. The target’s social skills; being liked, positive attitude (49%).


Fig. 2  

Many of the targets desire to tough it out, along with their strong work ethic, the desire to downplay it’s impact or shame, can prevent them from admitting what is happening despite it not being their fault.


How can coaching help targets?

Coaching’s role is many and varied when it comes to helping targets.  Our top five ways to make a real difference are to:

  1. Help them understand that they are not alone and that they did not cause the bullying to happen. Having an open and honest conversation that sadly there may be very little they can do to change the behaviours around them is key (even though there is a clear injustice in allowing bullying behaviours to continue). Ultimately, the coach may assist them to make a decision to leave the workplace.
  2. Enable them to regain a sense of safety and a positive sense of identity (which could potentially transform their experience.)Ontological coaching methods such as mBraining can be excellent for this.
  3. Teach them to change how they respond – developing a deeper awareness of themselves, increasing their resilience, compassion, and a greater ability to regulate their emotional responses and wellbeing (despite the behaviour of others). Coaching methods that work with the intelligence of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) can be particularly effective here – for example mBIT Master Coaching).
  4. Make it clear legally what employees can do if they are being bullied; teaching them how to present a form complaint and prevent victimisation if they do e.g. by talking to HR or opening up to an anti-bullying advocate or at least someone an employee can talk to informally.

Some of the tools we use to teach self-care on an ongoing basis include:


  1. Teach self-nurturing strategies.

When clients experience regular bullying or re-live traumatic memories during sessions, teach them to take care of themselves (good nutrition, exercise, sleep etc.) and to self-nurture through simple strategies like:

  • Slowly and mindfully stroking, rubbing, squeezing their arms and hands in a way that feels pleasurable for them. The Havening technique is a great example of this.[8]
  • Stimulating the Vagus nerve to increase parasympathetic firing and enhance vagal tone over time e.g. rocking, humming, chanting Om, utilising deep belly rhythmic breathing etc.


  1. Multi-Mindfulness

Mindfulness can help individuals develop a deeper awareness of themselves and improve their ability to regulate emotional responses, increase resilience and compassion.  Adapting the common westernised form of mindfulness, we strongly recommend a form of multi-mindfulness, where focus and attention (non-judgementally) is taught, incorporating head, heart, gut and ANS.  For example:

  • Head – focus on a mantra – or looking at an object.
  • Heart – focus on the sensation of a positive feeling, such as gratitude, appreciation or compassion.
  • Gut – focus on dropping your attention into your abdomen and a sense of “I am.”
  • ANS – in quietness, do a whole body scan right out to skin level and be alert to any sensations and what they might be communicating to you.


  1. Develop a strong gratitude practice.

The positive mental and emotional effects of a regular gratitude diary are well known.  It involves expressing gratitude for the things in your life – not just the good things, but being thankful for everything in your life.  The goal is to go at your own pace and include anything and everything that that comes to mind, then taking that gratitude to heart level so it is ‘felt’ and even to gut level, to a sense of you ‘being’ grateful.


  1. Promote loving kindness and compassion.

An overwhelming theme across the globe is the need to prepare people at all levels to have a sense of wellbeing, happiness and resilience so they handle life and traumatic experiences like bullying.  At The Healthy Workplace we believe there are no circumstances when bullying is acceptable – there is alwaysanother way.  Ultimately, we need to create a climate of kindness by being kind and standing up for kindness.


Introducing daily lovingkindness meditation in organisations could potentially accomplish more than legislation.  We suggest instituting a metta / lovingkindness meditation as an organisational wide practice.  It teaches us to be a better friend to ourselves and increase compassion to others.  The basic idea is to generate positive thoughts / feelings while focusing on the intended recipient of your thoughts.  You can choose your own phrases to recite or adopt a series of standard phrases.  For example:

  • May I be protected and safe. May I be peaceful and contented.  May I love myself just as I am.  May I be filled with loving kindness.  May I be happy. 
  • May my family and friends be protected and safe.May my family and friends be peaceful and contented.  May my family and friends love themselves just as they are.  May my family and friends be filled with loving kindness. May my family and friends be happy.
  • May my workmates / entire organisation be protected and safe. May my workmates be peaceful and contented.  May my workmates love themselves just as they are.  May my workmates be filled with loving kindness.  May my workmates be happy.


In summary

Experience to date shows that writing a policy, having legal frameworks in place or expressing a desire to create psychologically safe environments is not yet enough.  We believe that coaching and creating a positive culture could be the missing link.  We advocate an approach that brings kindness, compassion, courage, dignity, self-respect and wisdom to all of those involved: the perpetrator, the target, bystanders, managers and the bully –  and someone that we haven’t talked much about – the antithesis of the bully.  The antithesis is someone that actively resist bullying tactics, defends and speaks up for those targeted and witnesses.  Imagine if this happened at all workplaces across the globe creating a powerful force for change – what an amazing role coaches could have.

As coaches and influencers, let’s be the change we wish to see in the workplace and in the world and let’s focus on nurturing the positive aspects of all workers to empower each of them to recognise, respect and support each other, so that all of them can thrive.

We would welcome a conversation with any coaches or organisations who are challenged by or are working in this area and are willing to share their experiences.



Dr Suzanne Henwood and Sarah Carruthers are the founders of The Healthy Workplace where they help individuals thrive at work and in life.  Together they help organisations create inspiring, and high-performing workplace environments that facilitate collaboration, encourage ownership, enhance wellness and productivity.  And they help individuals to develop the ability to withstand, recover and grow in the face of stressors and the changing demands of work and home.  If you or your organisation would like to find out more please visit www.the-healthy-workplace.comor email Suzanne@thw.nzor sarah@thw.nz



[1]2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, June 2017


[3]TUC Hazards Fact Sheet number 70.

[4]www.workplacebullying.org, World Health Organisation



[7]https://www.workplacebullying.org/and author of “The Bully at work.”



Article originally featured in June 2019 issue of Worldwide Coaching Magazine  https://www.worldwidecoachingmagazine.com 

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