Managers beware: Sometimes employees who receive your highest performance reviews may be wrecking havoc on your organization behind your back.
We know over 50 million Americans (and possibly many more) suffer as a target of workplace bullying and, even worse, in over 60% of the cases that are reported, the organization either takes the side of the bully overtly, or does nothing to help the target.
I’m often asked how workplace bullies can get away with it. If the problem was so awful, why don’t organizations don’t come to the aid of the targets? A new study titled Political Skill and the Job Performance of Bullies, published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, may be shedding light on the answer. While most studies of workplace bullying focuses on the targets, this study focuses on the perpetrators and marked the first study to attempt to link an employee’s engagement in bullying behaviors with his or her job performance. They found that the answer lays in the level of political savvy the individual possesses.
When we think of the term “bully” a rather cliche image of your typical schoolyard thug likely comes to mind. However, that’s not necessarily the way it works in the real world. The authors point out that many individuals who exhibit bullying behavior may be highly socially skilled and use this political savvy to gain the approval of their bosses and earn high performance reviews.
“Bullies are likely ‘skillful manipulators’ that are not only more capable of processing social information, but more effective in using that information to their own benefit.”
The authors of the study looked at workers in a healthcare facility in Northwestern United States, collecting data about bullying, political skill and job performance.
- To assess bullying behaviors, employees were given a roster of other employees and were asked to indicate each person who exhibited specific behaviors, such as engaging in unfair criticisms, withholding work-related information, and excluding others from social interactions.
- To assess political skill and savvy, they used a questionnaire with questions like “I always seem to instinctively know the right things to say and do to influence others” in which respondents rated themselves on a seven point scale.
- To assess job performance, they used data from organizational performance evaluations.
They found that individuals who exhibit bullying behaviors and also rate themselves as highly politically savvy are more likely to have positive performance evaluations. Alternatively, those who do not rank themselves as politically savvy, even if they do not exhibit any bullying behaviors, are likely to have lower performance evaluations than those who do bully and are politically savvy.
Here are some earlier findings to consider:
- Sutton et al (1999) found that when overt bullying behavior is witnessed by others, it is likely to be observed as “out of character” for the perpetrator by their boss and powerful others, and thus credited with provocation on the part of the target or as a strategic move that the bully intends to be helpful to the target in the long-term.
- Treadway et al (2004) found that employees with a high need for achievement will be more likely to resort to bullying behaviors in highly competitive environments to isolate and impede the success of those they consider to be rivals.
- Treadway et al (2007) found that politically skilled employees are better able to disguise their self-serving behavior. Specifically, they found that their bosses were less likely to recognize their subordinate’s ingratiation.
What’s all this mean for organizations? A few thing come to mind:
- 360 reviews might go a long way to unearthing this type of information, but you’ve got to do them in a way in which all employees are confident that you will maintain strict confidentiality. If they don’t feel safe, they aren’t going to be honest.
- Look beyond the obvious. As a manager, you have obligations to all of your employees, not just the ones you want to go out and have a beer with after work. Things aren’t always what they seem to be on the surface. Look deeper, and be open to what you might find.
Like this article?
Political skill and the job performance of bullies, published in 2013 in the Journal of Managerial Psychology Volume 28, No. 3 by Treadway, D., Shaughnessy, B., Breland, J., Yang, J., and Reeves, M.
Bullying and “theory of mind”: A critique of the “social skills deficit” view of anti-social behaviour, published in 1999 in Social Development Volume 8 by Sutton, J., Smith, P.K. and Settenham, J.
Leader political skill and employee reactions, published in 2004 in The Leadership Quarterly Volume 15 by Treadway, D.C., Hochwarter, W.A., Ferris, G.R., Kacmar, C.J., Douglas, C., Ammeter, A.P. and Buckley, M.R.
The moderating role of subordinate political skill on supervisors’ impressions of subordinate ingratiation and ratings of subordinate interpersonal facilitation, published in 2007 in the Journal of Applied Psychology Volume 92 by Treadway, D.C., Ferris, G.R., Duke, A.B., Adams, G.L. and Thatcher, J.B.