Last week, I talked about the toxic phenomenon of bullying in the workplace. Based on a few comments on my LinkedIn post, it’s clear that long-term, aggressive, harmful bullying is something we need to worry about. If you didn’t get a chance to learn about the three different forms that bullying takes and the steps you can take to counteract bullying aimed at you or a teammate, have a read here.

Now let me be controversial. In that post, I cited research that said 30% of people report being bullied (it rises to 43% among remote workers). I don’t buy it. I suspect that a large percentage of those cases wouldn’t meet the threshold of bullying. For my part, I have certainly witnessed bullying behavior, both as a member of several teams and as a facilitator of hundreds of them, but those instances have been exceedingly rare, less than a handful in my 25-year career.

Do you agree with me that people use the term bullying too casually?

What’s behind the overuse of the term? What should we do about it?

If It’s Not Bullying, What Is It?

I hear people talk about being bullied when I would describe what they experienced as nothing more than uncomfortable or unpleasant. Is all discomfort unwarranted, unproductive, and intolerable in a healthy team? Of course NOT!

I believe that the heart of the problem is that our culture is becoming exceedingly intolerant of discomfort. When one team member questions or challenges another’s work, suddenly it’s considered team dysfunction, bullying, toxic. It’s getting ridiculous. As soon as we’re admonishing the person who’s pushing for stronger, better work and protecting the person who’s content to stay comfortable, we’re in trouble.


I talked in the previous post about what counts as bullying. It needs to include aggressive interactions, job interference, or attempts to socially isolate a person before it’s considered bullying. To qualify as bullying, bad behavior also needs to include repeated attempts to exert psychological power over the person. What you’re seeing is likely not bullying.

But is it necessarily healthy?

Bad Behavior, But Not Bullying

No, just because it’s not bullying doesn’t mean it’s healthy or warranted. There is a long list of behaviors that I think are short-sighted, self-centered, and ultimately harmful that don’t pass the threshold of bullying but should be addressed and eliminated. On that list, I would include:

  • Belittling a work product. For example, “this is amateur hour,” “this is a piece of crap,” “This argument has bigger holes in it than the Titanic.” If you’re on the receiving end of a comment like that, try saying, “If you want me to make it better, I’m going to need something specific that you’d like changed.” If you are the witness to the comments, try, “Amateur hour isn’t helpful, what specific aspects of the report do you find lacking?”
  • Changing expectations mid-stream. When a person sets to work and then the expectations change halfway through, that’s frustrating and inefficient. Don’t change the rules in the middle of the game. If someone does that to you, reiterate the initial instructions, “I did it this way because you asked me to include the feedback from the top five clients. If you want to add our top 50 clients, I can do that.” If you see someone changing the expectations of a colleague, you can help by pointing out the inconsistency, “I heard you ask for the report to include the top 5 clients, not the top 50.”
  • Leaving people out of relevant discussions. If a colleague starts to marginalize you by not inviting you to meetings, walking out (or clamming up) when you enter the break room, or copying others on emails but not you, it’s worth speaking up. You might say, “I heard that you had a conversation about the Midwest marketing strategy. I’m going to be responsible for implementing that, so I’d like to be included next time.” If you’re the witness to a teammate’s efforts to exclude someone, try saying, “I would like Kathy to be included in this conversation, I’m going to text her to drop by.”

Too Sensitive for Collaboration, Constructive Criticism, and Consequences

If it’s not bullying, and it’s not bad behavior, it might just be hardwork.

If you expect that working on a team is going to be all smiles and pats on the back, you’re delusional. Collaboration is hard. Constructive criticism is uncomfortable and important for growth. (Negative) consequences are unpleasant and critical to fostering accountability.

Here’s my list of behaviors that we need more of, not less of. If you or someone on your team is bristling at these behaviors, it’s not the person who’s engaging in these constructive approaches who needs to change.

  • Looking at your draft work product and asking for it to have more, less, or different content or stronger, fresher, or snazzier style
  • Pointing out the stakeholders that have not been considered in your plan and advocating on their behalf
  • Highlighting the assumptions you’ve made in your work and what would happen if those assumptions proved untrue
  • Commenting or getting frustrated when you’ve made the same mistake more than once
  • Noting that you’ve been using the same process for your work for several years and asking where there might be efficiencies
  • Disagreeing about the optimal solution to a problem or about the existence of a problem in the first place
  • Asking clarifying questions to understand where you’re coming from and using follow-up questions if your answers aren’t clear or compelling
  • Withholding a positive outcome because your contributions weren’t sufficient or not commensurate with your role or responsibilities

There is zero room to tolerate bullying. That’s clear-cut. It’s also important to be intolerant of behavior that doesn’t qualify as bullying but does detract from a healthy, happy, and productive team. But that leaves A LOT of room for uncomfortable, tense, icky moments that you should be encouraging, rather than trying to eliminate. For goodness sake, let’s stop calling every uncomfortable or heated interaction bullying.

Further Reading

Why are women so mean to other women?

Should I get involved?

4 Quick Tips for Those Who Have Been Told to Tone the Conflict Down