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Unholy Trio: Bullying, Cronyism, and Narcissism

How and why workplace bullies thrive

Since I first posted about bullying at work, I've heard numerous accounts of workplace bullying. They have ranged from relatively minor (usually because the victim is able to stand up to the bully and get the bully to back off) to the heart wrenching (people who have to quit their jobs, some who suffer from PTSD, and are on the verge of suicide).

I wanted to talk about two other workplace evils that together with bullying constitute an "unholy trio" that when combined can make a workplace a living hell. I have been made aware of leaders, bullies themselves, but who are able to attract cronies who will side with them and deny that the leader is a bully. In fact, these cronies will represent to higher authorities that the bully-leader is a "caring and compassionate" leader, and that the victim is really the problem. In exchange, the bully-leader gives favors and resources to these cronies, and the cycle of persecution continues for the poor victims.

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I think that underlying this process is a clinical or sub-clinical level of narcissism on the part of the bully-leader and the cronies. All too often, these bullies feel justified for their actions against victims. Since they can do no wrong (in their own minds), the victim is the problem, and the bullies feel justified in their persecution. My guess is the intent is to bully the person in order to get the victim to quit. The misguided bullies believe, in their narcissistic thinking, that this will create a better workplace.

Bullying, cronyism, and narcissism thrive in the workplace because other employees ("bystanders" to the bullying process), and higher-level leaders, refuse to get involved. Often, this is simply, on the part of the leaders and some bystanders, the desire to avoid any sort of conflict. In many cases, the bystanders - and even the higher-level leaders - are afraid that the bullies and their cronies may turn their destructive behavior on them. In the case of some higher-level leaders, the bully and cronies are able to dupe them with their assertion that the victim is the real problem. When that happens, it is usually because the leader is not doing his or her job of monitoring what is really going on at the lower levels of the organization. In any case, the unholy trio continues ultimately because of a failure of leadership.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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