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How to bully your way to the top

These are the tactics bullies use to gain and keep power.

5 min read




Research proves that workplace bullying affects the health and well-being of its victims, as well as contributes to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and decreased retention. Why then, do the bullies at work often appear to be so successful?

It’s simple. Workplace bullies striving to get to the top have learned the fine art of control — of people, power structures, media and threats — inside and outside of the organization. They operate with the following behavioral tenets to assure their success.

Tenet 1: View all interactions through the lens of how they serve you

It’s important to capitalize on every interaction to support your own agenda. Therefore, think carefully about with whom you choose to collaborate at work, with whom you socialize and how often, and to whom you offer or request favors or support. Choose only those relationships that will be of value to you now or at some important point in the future. Don’t waste time with people who are not in a position to help advance your objectives.

Tenet 2: Control the narrative of your leadership

Ascension requires careful crafting of the messages conveyed by you and the impressions established of you as a leader. Develop a memorable mantra that establishes a key talking point of your leadership. Repeat it frequently so that it becomes imbedded into the culture of the team around you. Be sure that those you’ve identified as your loyalists are evangelizing your message throughout the organization and beyond, so that new team members become easily indoctrinated. And, by all means possible, control what is written about you and how you present yourself publically, so that those words and images convey your greatness.

Tenet 3: Seek out smart, capable people for your team

There is one caveat to selecting these folks: be certain that you’ve identified in them a vulnerability that you can exploit. This is critical to maintaining control over people who may be more intellectually capable than you are and allows you to drive ideation in a way that guarantees your goals will be accomplished. Moreover, there will be times when your objectives are best served by taking credit for others’ ideas. To seamlessly maneuver into the spotlight, you need a team that is willing to relinquish their moment in front of the cameras in deference to you.

Tenet 4: Control access to the power structures above you

This is a special challenge if you’re a leader who adopts tenet No. 3. The smart, capable people on your team may tend to get noticed by others. It’s essential that you appear to be the reason the team is successful, so you must remain the conduit to the axis of power in the organization. No one advances or obtains the support of the leaders above you without your blessing. (And, of course that blessing is given only if tenet No. 1 is satisfied in the process.)

Tenet 5: Leverage “plausible deniability” for any perceived failures

If any project or process mistake on your part, or on the part of your team, can possibly be attributed back to the source, be certain to craft a plan that deflects blame before initiating the work. If something goes wrong, you can then attribute the problem to another department or functional area, or an external factor beyond your control. Occasionally, a trusted loyalist or colleague may become collateral damage in the process of concealing your own failure. Such is life. Better that they’re thrown under the bus than you.

Tenet 6: Eliminate external or internal threats to your power

This strategy requires acute attentiveness on your part, in which you frequently scan the environment for potential challenges to your position in the social and organizational hierarchy. This can be accomplished by overt declarations of other’s inadequacies. Or, you may employ a more subtle, passive-aggressive technique by which you sow doubt in the minds of others in the power structure about the capabilities of your enemies. Choose only to sponsor or mentor those in the organization that you are sure will continue to respect your power; whether that’s achieved through blind loyalty or fear.

Strategic application of these six tenets can help you navigate to the top of your organization. To do so requires tenacity, focus and a dogged commitment to your own success. The only downside is that you have to be a bully to use them.


Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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