High Performers Victimized at Work


Recently in the news, a Prince Edward Island man, described as a dedicated and high performing worker, suffered a heart attack apparently linked to bullying at work.

While the news highlights the problem of bullying at work, as well as its potentially dire consequences, it also points to the problem of who gets bullied. The assumption made is most victims are hapless individuals who bring the situation upon themselves when, according to research, high performers are more likely to be targets of victimization.

Envy of high performers is an obvious cause, but there is more at work in bullying high performers than meets the eye – reasons discussed by workplace psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Newman with Rick Cluff on CBC’s The Early Edition.

How is it high performers are more likely to be targets of the workplace bully?

Employees with high cognitive ability can experience more victimization, and so too can staff who work exceptionally hard. They are more likely to be the focus of attention and recognition, which makes them stand out. They tend to be good at their jobs and have good to excellent evaluations. They exhibit high levels of competence and are relied on to get things done. Their work is of high quality, and accurate. They provide good customer service and this combination of qualities are linked to the likelihood of being bullied.

What is it about workers who bully that leads them to target high performers?

They are keenly aware of the high performer’s attributes, and at the same time, they tend to overvalue their own contributions at work. They then compare themselves to the high performer, and inevitably come up short.

They may feel inferior and ‘less-than’ which leads to feelings of shame, humiliation, envy and jealousy, and an increase in resentment and hostility toward the high performer which can set up a desire to undermine, dominate, sabotage and somehow harm their colleague.

Cognitively, they justify their behaviour by blaming the high performer for their bullying behaviour. They convince themselves the high performer is a brown-noser or is sucking up to higher-ups, or is getting undeserved perks and special treatment.

This is all occurs in an effort to restore their damaged self-image. So, by harming the successful co-worker they attempt to restore and maintain their good opinion of themselves. The bullying continues because restoring one’s self image by harming another is a temporary fix.

Do supervisors bully high performers—surely, it’s in their best interests to support these workers?

Yes, bosses do bully high performers. Sometimes, you’ll see bully-bosses ridicule high performers in meetings. They compete with them and lie to them to undermine their performance. They take credit for the high performer’s work and, they resent the high performer for being recognized, especially, if it’s coming from the boss’s boss. They compare themselves to the high performing subordinate and, they notice their own shortcomings which leads them to reassert their status.

It would be in their best interests to nurture the talented worker, but that’s not how they experience the world. Many subscribe to principles of dominance, believing the world is made up of winners and losers. They believe that if they aren’t winning, they must be losing – hence the need to re-establish their “winner” image by denigrating and pulling down their subordinate.

Poor performers can be targeted too, can’t they, is this just an issue for star employees?

Poor performers are more likely to be targeted with overt bullying. Overt bullying can take many forms, like when you see a boss screaming at someone who just made a mistake, or calling them names, insulting them or making them the brunt of jokes.

Bully co-workers join in too, picking on a weaker employee which serves to bolster a bruised self image as well, as well as maintaining the pecking order. Unfortunately, star performers tend to be the brunt of both overt and covert bullying. Either way it’s damaging.

Bullied workers can wind up anxious and depressed. They suffer various health effects like depression, anxiety , panic attacks and heart palpitations, as well as the inability to stop replaying what has happened to them.

What can be done to curb workplace bullying?

To prevent high performer bullying, organizations can play a role in monitoring high performers experiences at work. Ensure they are supervised by effective leaders and recognize the signs of abusive, ineffective or negligent leadership.

Tell-tale signs like limelight grabbing, or subordinates who speak little in meetings are indicators. Lots of absences, lateness, turnover, or increased disability claims in certain areas are hints. Supervisors who turn a blind eye to co-worker-to co-worker bullying is another symptom.

My advice is to use staff feedback about leaders, like exit interviews where workers are asked about their experience with managers.

Another option is to develop the teams your high performers work in. Teams in which everyone shares in the success tend not to bully high performers. Take a hard look at the environment the high performer works in and ask yourself: is it one where status and prestige is valued over collaboration? If competition is rewarded and a dog-eat-dog mentality is a common mindset, the likelihood of a high performing staff person being bullied goes up.

What about when a poor performer is targeted, what can be done in that case?

Managers of low performers can experience varying degrees of frustration, irritation or embarrassment when supervising low performers. If managers act on any of these emotions they can become abusive, and some may tend to avoid the situation as opposed to overtly bullying the struggling worker. Simply allowing a poor performer to languish will exacerbate matters.

Moving quickly to identify a poor performer and providing them with support and training can help, as well as ascertaining if the job is the right fit. Be aware that bully co-workers will jump on a supervisor initiated bully-bandwagon if steps are not taken early, and this is the case whether the target is a high or low performer.

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