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Direct vs indirect

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Bullies’ tactics differ depending on whether they employ active or passive aggression

Some workplace bullies employ overt, obvious active aggression to intimidate the nurses they target, while others employ more subtle, indirect passive aggression. Others again employ both tactics at different times during the same campaign. What are the key differences between the two forms of anger?

Bullies who employ active aggression are direct in their expressions of emotion. They become adept at intimidating their targets in a show of clear aggression. Tactics include direct verbal and/or non-verbal tactics such as:

  • Clenching their fists when looking at the nurse they are targeting, rolling their eyes when that nurse enters the room, or tutting when the nurse speaks;
  • Arriving unannounced at the nurses’ station and glaring at the nurse they are targeting;
  • Stomping up to a nurse in a corridor, using their physicality to convey contempt and aggression, and speaking to them in an openly disrespectful way.

What the bully aims to do via indirect tactics

● To resist and obstruct the aims of the target nurse
● To undermine the target nurse’s confidence, morale and self-esteem
● To label the target as a poor nurse, or someone who is incompetent and not to be trusted
● This article contains extracts from Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying (Mint Hall Publishing, 2015)


Each of these behaviours is designed to place the nurse on the back foot, in the hope that she or he will not know how to defend themselves, will be too scared to fight back, or won’t know how to do so effectively. The bully hopes that by introducing overt, active aggression into the relationship they can throw their target off guard, secure their compliance and successfully create a bullying dynamic between them.

Bullies who use passive aggression express their emotion differently, letting it out in indirect ways which may include:

  • Always disagreeing, opposing or arguing with the point of view put forward by the target nurse, while using an apparently reasonable tone to do so.
  • Unfairly criticising the target’s work to their face, regularly pointing out what they consider to be errors.
  • Slandering the target behind their back, often taking a small piece of truth (such as saying that the target nurse was attending such-and-such a patient on a named ward) and dressing it up in falsehood (such as implying that the nurse administered the wrong dose to the patient).

It is vital that any nurse recognises the tactics for what they are - tactics designed to throw them, undermine them or intimidate them - and finds a way of actively engaging with the bullying behaviour, either at the time of the attack or as soon as the issue comes to their attention. Sending a clear message to the bully who uses active or passive aggression that their tactic hasn’t prevailed - hasn’t caused the nurse to doubt themself and hasn’t resulted in the nurse becoming compliant and passive - will give the bully pause for thought, and will be self-preserving and self-protective for the nurse.

● This is the fourth of six articles on bullying behaviour at work. Subsequent articles will explore upwards bullying and how to handle bullying at the time of an attack.

Aryanne Oade has worked as a chartered psychologist for more than 20 years


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Readers who would like to explore issues around workplace bullying further can download a range of free audio and written resources on detoxifying and recovering from bullying, learning to become bully-proof and handling adversarial behaviour at work:

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