Some people grow out of it, some people grow into it. Either way, workplace bullying persists throughout the world, damaging productivity, profit, and our real bottom line – people. We’ve been undertaking some research with our clients. In our latest Practitioner Call, our CEO and founder, Dr Stewart Desson, explores how often it happens, whether there are personality traits of people that do the bullying, leadership traits that make it more likely, or whether it’s simply down to the culture.


Afterall, being bullied can be life-shattering. Victims can feel scared and helpless every time they walk through the door. It can affect mental and physical health, turn a dream job into a living hell, ruin careers, and push people to breaking point.



We Should All Feel Safe to Be Ourselves and Supported to Grow

Whether it’s a manager who threatens dismissal if targets aren’t met, finding yourself the butt of every cruel office joke, or an employee who threatens to walk at critical stages of a project when they don’t get their own way, no one should have to endure bullying.


It’s every employer’s responsibility to identify and put a stop to such behaviour. To make leadership development and organisational development a key priority. For the sake of the happiness and productivity of their employees, and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (Which exists in many variations around the world). Organisations should not dismiss manipulation, threats and aggressive behaviour as a character-building clash of personalities.





It’s a Global Issue that Spans Industries

One that should be taken very seriously. Bullying can be deeply embedded in every area of a business, from the C-suite to the front lines.


In our latest webinar, Stewart explores how workplace bullying is out of control:

  • Almost a third of people (29%) have been bullied at work
  • In 72% of cases, the bully in question is a manager
  • Out of 2,000 people, most have witnessed bullying but only 48% did anything about it.
  • 68% said the behaviour was ‘subtle’, such as leaving colleagues out.
  • 36% of people who report being bullied at work leave their job because of it.
  • 1 in 20 said they had witnessed physical violence between colleagues.
  • Most workplace bullying happens among 40 to 59-year-olds, where 34% of people are affected.

(YouGov, 2015, and Acas)



It’s All Too Easily Missed or Condoned

Environments where we are constantly stressed can be a breeding ground for rash and morally questionable decisions. But as adults, we don’t necessarily want to go ‘crying to the teacher’ at the first sign of trouble.


What if your boss was bullying you? Reporting it could mean making things worse for yourself, or even losing your job. With our career, reputation, and financial security on the line, we tend to just try and cope by ourselves.


Bullying behaviour is often not noticed by busy superiors. Or worse, it’s passed off by senior management as the victim being oversensitive to someone’s ‘leadership style’. Sometimes such behaviour is even actively condoned, as it seems to ‘get results.’ But at what cost?



Bullying is the Kryptonite of Success and Innovation

It hurts people, but it hurts an organisation’s bottom line, too. In fact, bullying-related absenteeism, turnover and lost productivity costs the UK economy £18 billion every year (Acas, 2015).


It also causes:

  • Financial loss resulting from legal costs, employee assistance programs, or bullying investigations
  • Loss of employee trust and loyalty
  • Decreased productivity and morale
  • A toxic working environment
  • Increased employee absences
  • Higher staff turnover rates – having a reputation for a negative working environment will make it harder to attract new talent, too.
  • Lower quality customer service
  • Poor team dynamics


46% of people believe that bullying has an adverse impact on their performance at work, and a negative effect on their mental health. 28% are affected physically, and 22% have to take time off work as a result of being bullied (YouGov, 2015).


Witnesses of bullying can suffer similar emotional trauma to the victims: anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, PTSD (Emdad, Alipour, Hagberg, and Jensen, 2012).





What Causes Bullying?

Bullies will often try to justify their behaviour. However, it’s simply about abusing power and hurting others for personal gain. It usually comes down to a dysfunctional organisational culture (one that is overly tough or competitive, that leaders create), and personality divergence between leaders and staff.


It can be triggered by organisational development such as restructuring, downsizing, increases in workload or ensuing role ambiguity. Some people lash out at others when they feel insecure or at risk and can’t effectively communicate their feelings.


New recruits can be socialised into a bullying culture, too. Victims who are unable to change things can end up joining in and becoming bullies themselves.


Our research shows that almost all personality traits, when triggered to become dysfunctional, can result in bullying (i.e. it is not just “red” traits such as being controlling or domineering). A typical personality test doesn’t separate positive and dysfunctional personality, however. In one tool, our innovative psychometric personality test, Lumina Spark, provides three lenses that assess your underlying persona, your everyday persona, and your overextended persona. It gives you consistent insights into your whole personality and removes the need for additional tests.



What are the Tell-Tale Signs?

You’re not typically looking for scuffed clothes or a bloody nose when you’re dealing with grown-ups in a workplace. You’ve got to pay attention to your gut feelings and look for other giveaways.


Bullying tends to be an escalating pattern of behaviour, rather than a one-off incident. Some red flags of someone being bullied include:


  • Increased absence or lateness
  • A drop in the standard of work, and struggling with deadlines
  • Loss of self-esteem, motivation or interest in a previously productive and engaged team member
  • Seeming scared, anxious, stressed and unhappy at work and in their personal life
  • Seeming ostracised


Mental and physical health effects include headaches, musculoskeletal complaints, fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, trouble sleeping, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and even suicidal thoughts. (Sansone and Sansone, 2015).


Bullying also impacts our core self-beliefs (Einarsen and Mikkelsen, 2003). Has someone ever picked on you and called you ‘stupid’? It turns out that too much stress over a long period of time actually affects our ability to memorise new information or retrieve facts.





Workplace Bullying Can Take Many Forms

Some people might feel that something is wrong but may not be sure that it’s bullying. However, it’s not necessarily going to be holding someone up against a wall and shaking them down for their lunch money. Some methods are more subtle.


There’s a stark difference between conflict and bullying. Conflict is an isolated incident, where both parties are of equal strength. People can be difficult without realising. In protecting their own needs, they might unintentionally hurt others. But bullies always know what they’re doing. Their methods can be direct, or indirect:


Direct Bullying:

  • Physical violence towards someone or their property
  • Verbal attacks and shouting
  • Constant criticism and delivering feedback in a negative and unconstructive manner
  • Intimidation
  • Manipulation
  • Making unfair threats about job security
  • Teasing, inappropriate personal jokes and private or public humiliation
  • Constantly interrupting and disrupting others
  • Blaming someone for another’s mistakes
  • Taking credit for another’s work
  • Negative eye contact


Indirect Bullying:

  • Gossiping, false accusations, and spreading lies
  • Undermining, passive aggressive comments
  • Constantly ignoring or excluding someone from lunches, meetings, emails, drinks, etc.
  • Delegating all menial tasks to someone e.g. all the filing or every tea round
  • Refusing leave
  • Setting impossible goals or setting someone up to fail, then mocking them when the inevitable happens
  • Repeatedly reminding someone of past mistakes
  • Overruling decisions or unfairly disregarding someone’s contributions
  • Flaunting status or power
  • Controlling resources or withholding information or training
  • Excessive monitoring and overbearing supervision
  • Unfairly criticising work
  • Manipulating roles, such as blocking promotion or progress by removing responsibilities
  • Shifting opinions and goal posts



When Managers Become Bullies

Leadership development is a focus for many organisations. However, sadly, most bullying is carried out by superiors. In fact, 72% of people have been bullied by their manager (YouGov, 2015).


Our research found that personality divergence is most predictive of bullying when a leader scores low in being people-focused, and the victim scores highly. We also found those overextending in red aspects (such as outcome-focused and discipline-driven) have the highest risk of bullying.


Over 80% of managers admit that bullying occurs within their walls. However, very few admit responsibility. Highly authoritarian or laissez faire leadership can end up creating and endorsing a culture of chaos. One in which bullies thrive, and abuse cascades down through victims. (Johnson, 2009).


There’s a difference between being a tough leader and one who outright abuses employees. When does it become bullying? When behaviour is overextended. Often, leaders only give feedback when they’re annoyed or overextended. With our unique personality test, Lumina Leader, executives can learn their triggers and have difficult conversations without overextended behaviour.


Leaders can gain a deep understanding of their natural leadership style and how to adapt it to meet others’ needs. Lumina Leader 360 review lets leaders see how their team perceives them and provides clear steps for leadership development.



The Personality of a Victim

Every person – and every victim – is unique. No one can be reduced simply to a type. Attempting to label people as such is counterproductive. Personality ‘types’ are not actually that predictive of how someone will perform at work or react under pressure.


Bullies typically go after people who they feel threatened by. Victims often possess more technical skill, empathy and likeability than their bullies (WBI, 2012). They are often the quiet, insecure, or passive employees. The ones who are unlikely to retaliate or report them. The ones who find compromise, and collaboration instinctive. Or those on the outsides of social groups, struggling with anxiety, neuroticism, or depression. Or simply ‘fresh meat’ new hires, lacking an established support network.


Some are picked on because of high moral and work standards; for being the ‘manager’s pet’. Surprisingly, some victims display a high conscientiousness, a patronising nature down to rigid style and perfectionism, low agreeableness, cynicism and uncooperativeness (Lind, Glasø, Pallesen, and Einarsen, 2009). Our research shows that victims can be down-to-earth, and reward driven, too. Also, that extraversion, being people-focused, discipline-driven and big-picture thinking are prominent personality traits in victims.



The Personality of a Bully

There is no concrete profile of a bully, either. However, all bullies need to control and dominate others. It’s likely that they grew up in an environment where vulnerability led to abuse. Their behaviour is about self-preservation or a desire for attention. By adulthood, unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with vulnerability become established personality traits.


According to 2017 research:

  • About 70% of bullies are male.
  • Both male and female bullies are more likely to target women – men, 65% of the time, and women, 67%.
  • 61% of bullying is carried out by managers or supervisors.


(WBI, 2017)


Studies around traits of bullies conflict each other. Bullies can be prone to high levels of extroversion, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, with low levels of agreeableness. (Mitsopoulou and Giovazolias, 2015).


Equally, however, other studies show low conscientiousness, laissez-faire leadership and high introversion in bullies. (Mathisen, Einarsen, and Mykletun, 2011). This is the opposite of an emotionally intelligent leader.


Our tools help to straighten things out. Lumina Spark measures 24 personality qualities in 3 personas to provide a unique portrait of who you really are. Every individual can increase self-awareness, reveal hidden potential and cope better under pressure.


It gives an accurate, personalised reading of strengths and areas for development. It also provides training on what it means to be emotionally intelligent. It gives individuals and leaders the tools to communicate with bullies and deal with their behaviour. See our ‘Steps’ below for tips on how to use Lumina Spark to create a script for talking to bullies.





Creating a Culture of Understanding

Bullies who get away with it do so because their organisation’s culture lets them. Advising victims to ‘brush it off’ or encouraging bullies to ‘treat people as they’d like to be treated themselves’ isn’t enough.


How many times have you wished someone would just better understand where you’re coming from? However, in situations of bullying, you’re not always going to get honesty from people. We often tailor our responses and behaviour or can ‘set each other off’. It’s why our psychometric personality tools are so helpful.


To reduce a bullying culture, you must look at the leaders, and the triggers and impact of overextending. The focus must be self-awareness. Our research shows that supportive, collaborative, people-focused cultures, strengthened by people-focused leaders—even when dysfunctional—are less likely to feature bullying. This sort of organisational development requires a precise language.


Lumina Spark provides that language. It uncovers practical actions for improved communication, teamwork and leadership. It inspires people to develop skills most needed in the workplace – adaptability, agile learning, a growth mind-set, partnering, and authenticity. Also, the ability to lead themselves and others—one of the key abilities of emotional intelligence.


Every individual within a team has a personal identity, but the group can take on a personality of its own. Lumina Team helps teams to understand each other’s personalities and how they interconnect, and what behavioural changes occur dependent on situation. It investigates the team’s own perspective of its character, how others view it, and highlights everyone’s unique contribution. It provides an easy-to-grasp language for improved communication, stronger self-awareness, stronger awareness of colleagues and motivates individuals as a team players to understand what they bring to the team. If someone brings some negative behaviours (such as bullying) into the team, we’re selective in our language to create a more and honest conversation, which is non-judgemental and constructive. Best of all, the Team Viewer feature visually plots this in a way that can be easily understood by all and brings team culture to life as seen below.



Steps to Tackle Bullying:

  • Address bullying as it happens – A personality test such as Lumina Spark enables managers to have conversations that are unique and personal to those involved. With all the facts to hand, leaders can steer the conversation and take steps to keep the victim safe. It helps them to carry out a check-up of the working environment, too.



  • Train your entire organisation – Not everyone understands the impact of their behaviour on others, or how it can be misunderstood. So, be clear about what’s expected of each employee, what’s acceptable, and what’s not. So that everyone knows how to help others and shut down inappropriate behaviour. So that they know how to be assertive, and own decisions. That includes managers, too. Instead of bossing people about or ‘leaving them to it’, Lumina Spark and Lumina Leader can help managers to get to know individuals on their teams, what everyone’s strengths are, and areas for leadership development.


  1. Start a frank conversation
  2. Describe the issue and goals in detail
  3. Remove the status quo
  4. Offer the bully a choice


Key Points

Our latest webinar and research prove that there is no ‘type’ of bully because no one is simply a ‘type’ of person. We are all different and that’s the key to tackling workplace bullying – understanding triggers, how we and others think and work, and learning how to better communicate with one another.


Want To See the Research?

Lumina Learning Practitioners can watch the call using February 2020 Practitioner Call follow up email. Don’t have it? we’ll send the call and slides over social media @LuminaLearning or via email at instead!


Not a Lumina Learning Practitioner but want to know more about our bullying research? Our Business Psychologist breaks down the research here.


Interested in getting qualified? Discover the benefits of becoming a Lumina Learning Practitioner. 



See our global network

Lumina Learning is a global network of skilled experts and practitioners operating in more than 40 countries all over the world.

Find your nearest expert

Lumina Learning is a global network of skilled experts and practitioners operating in more than 40 countries all over the world.