Bullying From the Eyes of the Bully

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Bullying is an ongoing, escalating pattern of aggressive behavior directed toward a person or group of people, which is based on or leads to an imbalance of power, with an underlying intent to harm.

Among nurses, bullying occurs in a wide range of settings, including academia, acute care hospitals, ambulatory care settings, and skilled facilities. Bullying can happen in a shifting power dynamic, called contrapower harassment, where those with a lesser status bully people in authority positions. Think: staff nurses bullying managers, patients bullying nurses, or students bullying educators.

Bullying behaviors can also have their origins in and be supported by organizational culture and the surrounding society.


We know that, from mass school shootings to school bullies to workplace violence, research into aggressive behavior has grown steadily over the years.

For example, we learned that, among school shooting attackers:

  • 98% had experienced a major loss
  • 78% had attempted or considered suicide
  • 71% “felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others,” 

Once a Bully, Always a Bully?

We know some, but not all, bullies may be or may have been victims of bullying.

Researchers call them “bully-victims.”

You may have heard your coworkers describe someone’s bullying behaviors as “so junior high school.” In fact, bullying behavior may be part of a pattern of behavior that begins in preschool or elementary school, peaks in middle school, and continues into adulthood. School bullying can lead to devastating outcomes including suicides, homicides, or both.

Not surprisingly, research has shown similarities between youth and adult bullying. In fact, recent research of college professors revealed high levels of a variety of psychological abuse by bullying adult students toward nurse educators.

Theories About Bullies

So, we all seem able to recognize a bully, but in a search for patterns among bullies, researchers find it hard to produce one reliable set of characteristics of The Bully.

Older theories suggested bullies had problems interpreting social information. Newer studies suggest the opposite: bullies can be especially good at reading the social cues of others. Newer research, also, challenges the older picture of the “loner” bully with a presentation of the “popular” bully with social status and supporters, who encourage or condone his/her behaviors.

Huh?! Okay, so, there is no single profile of a bully, BUT…

We do know something about the different kinds of bullies out there. Some authors believe we should just take the characteristics from each of the following to use as a guide.

The Machiavellian Bully:
  • Indirect bullying
  • Manipulates to maintain social status, power
  • Deceitful and cunning
  • Cynical about people
  • Highly competitive
  • Scores high in ability to ‘read’ others
  • Sees his/her behavior as a necessary means to an end
  • Is the boss, who sets impossible expectations, then berates coworker
  • Is the coworker, who spreads nasty rumors about a high achieving, popular coworker, to keep him/her from gaining a higher status or more popularity.
The Narcissistic Bully:
  • Appears grandiose
  • Acts demanding
  • Feels entitled
  • Exhibits poor self-control
  • Is socially incompetent
  • Appears self-confident, but may actually have low self-esteem
  • Narcissistic bullies may be Bully Victims, who act tough, but are really using aggression to protect a self-esteem damaged by maltreatment by others
  • Is the boss who always loudly belittles and humiliates in front of everyone
  • The nurse, who repeatedly calls out that one tech during hand-off reports for being sloppy, irresponsible, stupid, lazy, etc.
The Psychopathic Aggressor:
  • Narcissistic like the Narcissistic Bully
  • Appears callous
  • Seems totally unemotional
  • Is impulsive
  • Overreacts to being provoked
  • Socially disinhibited
  • Cold in relationships with others
  • Lacks empathy
  • Shows no remorse for hurting others
  • Threatens others with verbal or physical aggression
  • Does not accept blame, blames others, minimizes own behaviors

What Do We Do With a Bully?

If the bullying behaviors relate to personality problems, there may not be much you can do to change the behavior. For example, a bully with Narcissistic Personality Disorder would demonstrate pervasive characteristics and behaviors that could be hard to change, even if the individual wanted to change. Referral to outside professional help or dismissing the employee on grounds of misconduct might be the only answer.

Sometimes, a bully hasn’t always been a bully, though. Sometimes he or she is responding to a highly stressful or unsupportive work environment and/or a hierarchical organizational structure by resorting to bullying as a defense mechanism.

Talking with a bully about the motivations behind his/her behaviors, the expected outcomes or intentions of the bully, his/her fears and other emotions, and new ways to cope with peers may be all that is needed for the bully to check his/her behavior.

Click here to watch the video, “What if the Bully is You?

Looking Beyond the Bully

Beyond addressing the bully, take a look at how your unit is running:

  • Are there high job demands, low job control?
  • Is there adequately trained staffing and resources?
  • Are there clear policies and procedures?
  • Are the policies being enforced?
  • Does everyone know their role?
  • Are workloads consistently distributed fairly?
  • Is the leader present and engaged with staff?
  • Are there consequences for undesired behaviors?
  • Is all staff encouraged to participate in important decisions made on the unit?
  • Are there incentives for desired behaviors?
  • Is there effective communication among staff and management?
  • What do the socializations and friendships look like on the unit–any outcasts or loners? How can you engage them with other staff members?
  • Is there ongoing education for all staff members about bullying?

It’s safe to say that the majority of bullies were not born bullies, but they acquired belief systems and learned behaviors, and developed traits that have shaped their interpersonal relationships.

No one should tolerate bullying. Everyone can help to prevent it.

[Tweet “No one should tolerate #bullying. Everyone can help to prevent it. #healthyworkforce”]

The Healthy Workforce team is standing by to identify what’s really happening within your organization and help you prioritize the action steps needed to move beyond the problems and create a healthy workplace culture. To learn more, click here.

References for above content available upon request.

This article was written by Diane Feldhausen, a Healthy Workforce Institute Content Writer and Workplace Violence Specialist. 

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2 thoughts on “Bullying From the Eyes of the Bully”

    1. Renee Thompson

      Thanks so much! I’m so grateful you read my article and took the time to comment. I hope you continue to find my articles meaningful!

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