If you believe the myths, you will believe that every workplace bully is either a psychopath or a narcissist. You would also believe all bullies can never change.

My advice to you is that neither is true.

Many of the workplace bullying experts, from those who work directly in support to research, acknowledge that any of us can be bullies. For example, Capponechia and Wyatt argue that focusing on personality or mental health condition is too narrow a view. When you look at the list of bullying behaviours an employee can use, it is so broad that to contain it to only a certain group of employees is too narrow. They ask us, when looking at any list of bullying behaviours, “Now be honest. Any of us are capable of engaging in bullying right? Similarly, any of us could be a target.”

Workplace bullying expert and psychologist, Evelyn Field, states that “Good people turn evil when they dehumanise their victim” and that “most bullies are ordinary people who use a mixture of bullying behaviours to achieve their goals, avoid confrontation or survive at work.”

This is not to say that psychopathy or narcissism aren’t predictors of workplace bullying. Research indicates that they are, but bullying is not solely a result of these factors.

If you think too narrowly about who could be the bully, you place your company at risk of workplace bullying complaints and costly mental injury Workcover claims.

Who are the other perpetrators of workplace bullying?

Blackwood and Jenkins write that “an individual at any level within an organisation can be a perpetrator of bullying”. Bullying can be perpetrated top down, bottom up or peer to peer. The bullying may also be from clients or other external parties to an organisation. As with these authors, it is commonly accepted that bullying originates from a poorly developed work environment and there are factors at multiple levels in organisations that enable or encourage bullying behaviours.

They report numerous bullies who don’t fit the psychopath and/or narcissistic theory including the following.

The Good Colleague Turned Bad

The Good Colleague Turned Bad is the bully who emerges out of the work environment or culture. This is the bully where the work environment encourages and promotes power disparities between levels. In this environment, bullying may result from:

  • Maintaining the organisational status quo.
  • Role conflict and ambiguity causing stress and frustration resulting in aggressive and bullying behaviours.
  • Poorly implemented organisational change resulting in employees prioritising their own interests.
  • Ineffective leadership and opening opportunities for abuse of power.
  • Low autonomy workers becoming stressed or lashing out through bullying behaviours.

The Abrasive Performance Manager

The Abrasive Performance Manager may be present in workplaces with performance targets where to achieve those targets, bullying is used as a tool to meet targets and maximise performance. The abusive supervisor may humiliate and belittle to achieve the organisational objective or send a message poor performance will not be tolerated. The tactic is used to produce better outcomes from the employees.

The Mob

The Mob are a group of perpetrators who engage in bullying of a single target with tactics including social isolation and rumour-mongering. This can be influenced by an individual being different and perceived not to fit in. This is not just on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion, etc, but an individual may be targeted for violating social norms of the larger group.

When it comes to bullying, it is important not to buy into the stereotypes that bullying is carried out by narcissists and psychopaths. The research indicates employees bully as a result of varying factors and influences. To ignore them, continues the risk of bullying and costly psychological injury.