Have you ever worked with a bully and watched as they rose through the ranks, getting promotion after promotion? 

In an excerpt in Fast Company, Teresa A. Daniel addresses why it feels like these individuals so often seem to win. “Organizations with a culture focused on results at any cost create a situation where individuals with certain personalities seem to thrive,” writes Daniel. “Due to their social competence and political skills, some high-performance leaders are also able to strategically abuse coworkers and yet continue to be evaluated positively by their supervisor.” 

She says that research suggests that abusive leaders often do better professionally than their non-abusive peers. “People are impressed by their dominance, While not universally liked, the most dominant individuals were feared, which led to an increase in their social standing and resulting organizational success.” 

So what’s the lesson here, if you don’t want to be the kind of person who promotes bullies, thereby cultivating a toxic workplace for others? 

Focus on team performance, not individual performance

Researchers have found that managers can avoid this trap by promoting those who cultivate strong team performance, not just strong individual performance. It’s also important to ensure you’re not focusing too much on those who generate a good impression, “particularly in jobs that involve attracting attention and interest, such as leadership and sales, where toxic personalities can thrive,” writes reporter Arianne Cohen.

Bullying has serious impacts on individuals, but also on the bottom line of an organization, due to lack of employee retention and engagement. “Toxic behavior is a stupid business decision,” writes Pat Brothwell in a personal essay about his own experience at a toxic job. “A 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 58% of people who quit a job due to culture cited bosses and managers as their main reason.” 

De-escalate bullying behavior

Leaders can do many things to crack down on bullying in the office, but of course, most of us aren’t in a senior-enough position to crack down on bullying. There are ways you can push back on a bullying colleague and stand up for other coworkers, however.

Cognitive scientist Art Markman shares several techniques for de-escalating bullying behavior in a meeting, including avoiding rising to the same energy level, stepping in from the sidelines to support a coworker, and/or following up after the meeting with the individual.

Create a safe environment to speak up

If it’s an ongoing situation, seek support from others, suggest Jason Walker and Deborah Circo. Coworkers “can talk things through with you and become your allies if they are asked to describe or even testify about a bullying incident they witnessed,” they write.

But it’s also important to remember that the company must be committed to fostering a safe environment. “By establishing policies against bullying and fostering open lines of communication, workplaces can create safer spaces that enhance the well-being and productivity of their employees.”

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