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Discern bullying from aggression


Bullying and aggression may seem to go hand in hand but telling the two apart is key

Bullying behaviour is on the increase in hospitals across the UK. As a manager, at some point you are likely to be involved in responding to, or managing, incidents where a member of staff reports being, or feeling, bullied by another.

How do you tell the difference between true bullying and aggressive but non-bullying behaviour? The difference lies in the antagonist’s intention. True workplace bullying involves the following elements all being present at the same time:

  • One-off or frequent/repeated personal attacks that the person targeted experiences as emotionally hurtful or professionally harmful;
  • A deliberate attempt to undermine a person’s ability to carry out their work, injure their reputation, or undermine their self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • A deliberate attempt by the bully to remove personal power from the target and keep this control themselves.

This is the case whether the aggression is subtle and indirect - such as quietly slandering a target behind their back to undermine colleagues’ views of them - or overt, like an angry verbal attack made by a bully in a one-to-one or group meeting.

Tips on what constitutes bullying behaviour

● Targeted attacks that harm a person’s professional reputation, emotions or ability to do their job
● Attempts to undermine someone’s self-esteem or self-confidence
● Attempts to transfer power from the target to the bully
● This article contains extracts from Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying (Mint Hall Publishing, 2015)

True workplace bullying is about one colleague’s desire to make their relationship with another colleague about their power over them. Many bullies try to remove a target’s personal power by reducing their choices at the time of the attack.

Targets often feel the need to outwardly comply with the bully’s wishes while inwardly fuming at being subject to unprovoked aggression. Personal power is the target’s right to choose for themselves how they behave, what they think, what they do and with which values they will act in accordance. Learning to send back to a would-be bully the message that targets know how to protect themselves and preserve their personal power, is a key goal for staff members vulnerable to attack.

However, not all aggression constitutes bullying. Some staff may be aggressive towards colleagues because they mismanage their emotions that day. Anger dominates their behaviour and they vent their feelings while with colleagues. Their aggression may be extremely upsetting for anyone affected and necessitates an apology.

Bullying may damage a working relationship so much that the relationship becomes fractured, so it is vital to address is as soon as possible.

● This is the first in a six-part series of articles on bullying behaviour at work. Subsequent articles will explore the bullying dynamic, grooming, passive and active aggression, upwards bullying, and how to handle bullying behaviour effectively at the time of an attack.

Aryanne Oade has worked as a chartered psychologist for over 20 years. She coaches clients to recover from the effects of workplace bullying. She is the bestselling author of six books.


Free yourself from workplace bullying

Free Yourself From Worlplace Bullying is available to pre-order now



Readers' comments (3)

  • David Solomon

    Workplace bullying is terrible. I have found it usually stems from upper management. I myself have been part of upper management and observed and seen passive aggression constructed amongst the management. Whilst I was fairly new to a management role, my boss tried to manipulate me into bullying others; other workers through the form of allocating extra tasks, moving staff from one desk to another. Ultimately I was left drawn in the middle "piggy in the middle". I didnt want to my job to be threatened and I didnt want to be a bully. I had enough of the bullying tactics, anti-social verbal disputes and complained. I contacted my union , wrote a complaint and thought that would be it. wrong. I was completely targetted and cut out of meetings, threatening emails sent my way and undermined in my role. I found myself isolated, distrusting and not coping very well/ angry. I decided to leave but as I left my confidence and esteem were affected. I was glad to see this article published as bullying in the workplace can be seen as taboo and who really whistleblows without the fear of being next?

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  • 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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  • The problem is most of the help and advice is aimed towards people perceived, or who perceive themselves, as victims which puts them in a fragile position rather than advising them and others on how to confront and respond to such behaviour and prevent its propagation. The perpetrators and not the victims are more often the ones with serious issues and behavioural patterns that require professional intervention.

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