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When constructive criticism turns into bullying at work

When constructive criticism turns into bullying at work

Multiple studies have shown that bullying at the workplace is becoming an epidemic for organizations. It often targets highly talented and motivated employees and it has a significant financial and organizational impact on companies.

But where does constructive criticism ends and where does bullying begin?

Constructive criticism is "[...] prescribed to focus on the work rather than the person. Personality issues must always be avoided. Constructive criticism is more likely to be embraced if the criticism is timely, clear, specific, detailed and actionable." (Source)

Whereas (workplace) bullying is "[...] harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone's work tasks.[...] applied to a particular activity, interaction or process it has to occur repeatedly and regularly (e.g. weekly) and over a period (e.g. about six months). Bullying is a escalated process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts. [...] often operate within the established rules and policies of their organization and their society." (Source) Summarizing bullies may concealed or blamed on underlings or circumstances, keep target under constant stress, withholds information, blames conflicts and problems on targets lack of competence, poor attitude, and/or character flaws. Bullies often seek for sensitive targets were the sensitive target feels the effects of bullying. That means the target is responding to the effort the bully is making.

Ultimately the difference between constructive criticism and bullying is that constructive criticism is focused on actions to achieve a better outcome whereas bullying is focused on singling out a target by repeating blaming.

Phases of bullying

Phase 1

  • Social exclusion by a bully
  • Start of criticizing and "picking on" target
  • Collaborators often join in by demeaning and shunning target

Recommendations for the target: Investigate reason for bullying, document and evaluate the situation objectively

Recommendations for the Management: Analysis of the situation and open discussion about the bullying needs to take place

Phase 2

  • "Us versus the target tactics" begins
  • Harassment and stigmatization of the target
  • Blaming, shaming, and excluding the target from group activities
  • Damaging accusations undermine the abilities and confidence of the target

Recommendations for the target: Seek for help from mentor, HR and Management.

Recommendations for the Management: Strengthen target to discourage bully. Active and effective intervention is needed otherwise abusive behaviour escalates

Phase 3

  • Bully is clashing with the target on a series of issues
  • Rumour mongering discredits the target
  • Objective is to collect or create evidence of gross misconduct
  • Critical incident is fabricated to prove target is guilty of severe wrongdoing

Recommendations for the target: Seek to transfer within the organization to mitigate further escalation

Recommendations for the Management: Escalated situation need upper management to protect the target, it may be required to move the bully (or target) within the organization

Phase 4

  • Fundamental motivation is to undermine the competence and credibility of the target
  • Devaluation - even by management - is empowering the bully
  • Bully cultures crush and start to force out target
  • Damaging tactics are humiliating and isolating

Recommendations for the target: Leave the team or company immediately before more significant (psychological) damage is done

Recommendations for the Management: Senior management needs to protect the target by moving target within the company. It is essential to stop the current development immediately. Change in culture needs to be facilitated before it manifests

Phase 5

  • Unwarranted transfer or unjust termination of the target

Recommendations for the target: Seek help to regain confidence. At this stage, significant (psychological) damage may be done

Recommendations for the Management: Replacing key management to re-cultivate a better culture

Studies show that up to 40% of the workforce is experiencing bullying at their workplace at some point in their career. Bullying is a serious issue, and it demands capable leaders to protect the targets of bullying.

You have questions about this post? Would you like to share your thoughts or experience? You need advice because you are or have been bullied? You would like me to write more about a similar topic? Leave a comment or E-Mail me at

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