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Is Your Boss a Bully?

Most bullies think they’re virtuous, according to study results.

Key points

  • Bullying is a form of implementing social norms by threatening or canceling people with stigmatization.
  • Privilege feeds the bully’s sense of virtue.
  • It’s sometimes hard for us to identify bullying because of confirmation biases about what bullies look like.

The hallmark of bullying is getting one’s way through intimidation, threats, violence, or other aversive acts of control in which the bully has the power to cause harm and a personal versus official agenda. Thus, a patient cannot bully a therapist unless they have some other source of power that extends beyond talking in sessions, such as physical threats or the potential to file a formal complaint that will harm the therapist. Also, it’s not bullying when a meter-reader enforces parking rules by issuing tickets, unless the official has singled out the victim’s car because of, say, a particular bumper sticker or the race of the driver. It’s often difficult for the person being controlled to distinguish whether the punisher is just doing her job or is singling them out.

Most bullies think they are virtuous and that aversive control of the victim is justified (Johnson & Lewis, 1999). A recently published study (Moral & Ovejero, 2021) confirms this, especially if physical bullying is associated with self-approval by males and social-exclusion bullying with self-approval by females. Bullying is, in its way, a form of implementing social norms by threatening or canceling people with stigmatization.

Despising Weakness

Many bullies despise weakness or otherness, so they find themselves setting up interactions where the other person is vulnerable and weak, and they can feel strong and powerful. The moral stance of despising weakness or otherness makes them think they are no more bullies than does the drill sergeant in boot camp. It seems virtuous to promote a virtuous system. (Capitalists are often proud of their greed for a similar reason.) And don’t blame Nietzsche — he thought the weak and marginalized naturally resent the strong and centered, not that the truly strong naturally resent and exploit the weak and marginalized.

Many bullies despise a particular race or sex or some other stigmatized identity status in order to elevate their own. When they mistreat others, it seems to them like rectitude to enforce their preferred hierarchy or inclusion criteria.


Privilege feeds the bully’s sense of virtue. Privilege in this sense is the experience of being full-fledged, not stigmatized, and the bully often thinks they’re patrolling group membership for the good of the group. Almost by definition (since privilege leads to engrossment and not having to be situation-conscious), the privileged are unaware of the suffering of the stigmatized. Thus, bullies often note the compliance and submissiveness of victims and think their behavior “worked,” but often they don’t notice or appreciate the anguish they have caused.

Bosses often bully employees in the workplace. It’s well-known in organizational psychology that by far the thing most disliked thing about work is the boss, and, by far, these aversive bosses are described in the same way: imperious, self-aggrandizing, and blameful. As in every system, eventually the hegemony of rule-makers stops making rules that are good for the system and starts making rules that are good for the hegemony. Convinced of their own righteousness and blinded by the privilege that comes with organizational power, they begin to act as if their personal agendas and the organizational agendas are interchangeable. This leads bosses to silence dissent, take up too much space, behave self-indulgently, and blame their subordinates.

Passive–Aggressive Bullying

Discomfort with overt aggression leads to passive–aggressive bullying. Passive–aggressive refers to behavior that causes injury but looks unaggressive. Examples include adverse employment actions done with a concerned and unemotional face, not responding to emails from people with less power (such as one’s students), and driving slow in the left lane, perplexed why other people seem to be so irritated. Social exclusion is often practiced without overt aggression.

Confirmation Biases

It’s sometimes hard for us to identify bullying because of confirmation biases about what bullies look like. If you think bullies are big white boys, it will be hard to spot it when the perpetrator is a woman of color (for example). This confirmation bias around appearance is strongest with respect to ourselves. Nearly everyone has been bullied, and we tend to think of ourselves when we think of bullying’s victims, partly because we are so acutely aware when we are stigmatized and so oblivious when we are in the in-group. This makes it hard for us to see when we are taking things out on subordinates. “I can’t be a bully because I am [fill in the blank]” is a license to bully.

As noted, bosses tend to think that their power entitles them to bully their underlings, as if the fact of holding the job is like the divine right of kings, a sign that they are superior in other ways besides rank. Instead, a promoted colleague is like a stepmother who thinks she has authority over the teenagers solely because their father picked her as a mate: “I can’t be a bully because I am just doing my job.” Another common problem is people who think their lack of power entitles them to bully the people that they think have power. We see this lately in some people thinking their relative lack of power on a societal or political level entitles them to bully white men who have less power than they do in the immediate social or organizational context: “I can’t be a bully because I am a member of a historically oppressed group.”

Bosses implementing the company agenda, people preserving group norms, people driving weakness out of systems, people demanding conformity around preferred ideas and values, and people who give themselves a pass because of their low status in other situations: These are all bullies who think their mistreatment of others is a virtue.


Johnson, D., & Lewis, G. (1999). Do you like what you see? Self‐perceptions of adolescent bullies. British Educational Research Journal, 25(5), 665–677.

Moral, M. de la V., & Ovejero, A. (2021). Adolescents’ Attitudes to Bullying and Its Relationship to Perceived Family Social Climate. Psicothema, 33(4), 579–586.

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