“Every office full of ambitious people has them. And we have all worked with at least one—the co-worker with an inexplicable ability to rise in the ranks,” wrote the Wall Street Journal recently in an article entitled What Corporate Climbers Can Teach Us. “‘How do they do it?’ we may ask ourselves or whisper to friends at work,” it continued. “They don't have more experience. They don't seem that brilliant.”
The answer it suggests is the “dark triad” [pdf] of personality traits identified by psychologists as: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. “These traits are well-known for the bad behaviour that they can cause when dominant in people's personalities,” explained the article. “At milder levels, however, they can actually foster skills that can help people rise through the ranks.”
Of course, there’s a very fine line between demonstrating these skills for the purpose of career progression and becoming that covert workplace bully. And the latter is a serious problem. Recent research from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) released in Feb 2014 [PDF], shows 27% of all adult Americans have directly experienced “repeated abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or work abuse.”
Dr. Namie, Director of WBI and widely regarded as North America’s foremost authority on workplace bullying, tells us that bullies also usually exhibit this dark triad. In fact, he demonstrates that the sort of qualities that facilitate career progression are indelibly linked to workplace bullying. “Look at that package,” Dr. Namie tells us: “these are the people who are willing to meddle with others. They fill their days with political gamesmanship. And the other people, the targets, come to work to do their job.”
“[For the bullies] climbing the ladder is all of their work,” Dr. Namie continues. “It is their focus. It becomes a zero-sum game where they must obliterate all competition. They see co-workers as competition as opposed to peers, or a possible pool of friends. They see them as someone to dupe, overcome and climb over. And it is just Machiavellian. And some people don’t have that view at all. They’re co-corporative. They’re nice. They’re kind. The targets are in that group.”
Our own new research into bullying in tech supports this slightly sinister, nefarious view of career climbers who clamber on up, at both the expense of the company and their victims. Findings reveal that from a self-selecting study of over 650 IT professionals, 75% reported they had been bullied. Of these 94% highlighted psychological bullying, and in 74% of cases, the perpetrator was senior. This perfectly fits the profile of individuals who strategically abuse others to maintain their own position. And this type of manipulative self-protectionism can really hinder the bottom line.
Suzi Benoit who has investigated numerous US organisations across the spectrum is keen to stress there are two types of bully. “One is a straightforward bully who vents their anger and feelings onto other people. But to me, a toxic employee is a bully who has a strategy for maintaining their own power.”
“More toxic bullies who are trying to prevent themselves from being held accountable and are attacking people who are trying to improve the workplace,” she continues. “That toxic bully, or more strategic bully, is harder to deal with. They are really good at manipulating other people. They are very good at covering themselves.”
This viewpoint was strongly corroborated by numerous testimonials that came from the 400 in-depth accounts compiled for our study: “I showed up to do the best possible work and her [the bully’s] entire function was to advance herself,” wrote one. “I don't care about upward mobility” wrote another, “only about delivering the best product I can - for that I was driven out.”
Of course, all this is certainly an extremely one sided, and certainly doesn’t paint any kind of comprehensive portrait of corporate life. However, it does all seem to highlight that whilst some personalities might be better at making their way up the corporate ladder, they are not necessarily the best individuals either for the workplace, or for the organisation as a whole.
In fact, as we all know, superficially pleasant people who harbour such nasty character traits can find it particularly easy to move through workplaces that promote competition and hierarchies. And this can rapidly become an unequal contest. If an individual speaks out about perceived abuse by someone in a senior position, at best they run the risk of looking silly, whiny and emotional. At worst, they run the risk of being fired. Either way it is likely to damage the subordinate’s career prospects, especially as all this is notoriously difficult to prove and there is no overt legislation.
The most worrying part about our own survey results overall though, is that when we asked respondents who had been bullied to rate the scale of their abuse from one to ten, where one was mild, and ten was “virtually unbearable”, 76% rated it seven or more out of ten. Whilst 22% overall rated it as the full ten out of ten, “virtually unbearable.” Some people even told us they had contemplated suicide.
In truth, it is hard to pin down that fine line between rampant careerism and wantonly abusing others and the organisation for personal gain. However, all this does serve to raise awareness about some very real workplace issues. Maybe you were right to be suspicious of that unfathomably successful office fast-tracker?
Bullying: The Uncomfortable Truth about IT:
Full report: Bullying: The Uncomfortable Truth About IT
Video: Video: Bullying in IT
Infographic: Bullying Amongst IT Professionals
Summary of findings: IDG Connect Announces New Research
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond
Rupert Goodwins’ unique angle on tech change