How to Know if You’re a Bully

Written by | Updated March 4, 2014

Bullying is a ubiquitous threat to public safety for both children and adults, and studies show its effects can last long after the bullying has stopped. If you are unsure whether you may be a bully at work, school, or elsewhere, these questions will help you to reflect on your behavior and that of others around you.

1. Do I know what bullying is?

Bullying is “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) … that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” The new definition was published in January 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Education (ED), and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). They focus on associations other than dating and family relationships, but bullies can exist wherever people interact.

2. Do I derive satisfaction from others’ failings?

Bullies put people down in order to lift themselves up. If you like seeing coworkers mess up a task, or if you engage with others primarily in competition, you will likely be less inclined to be supportive of others’ successes and more inclined to ignore their feelings. Schadenfreude may feel good, but it leads to bullying.

3. How’s my listening?

Do you listen carefully when people are talking or do you think mostly about how you will respond? Listening, with empathy, is a good guard against bullying. If you care about how your actions affect others, you are less likely to act in a way that hurts them.

4. Do I want to be known as tough?

How important to you is that your reputation is one of dominance and strength? Being known as competent is not a problem, but if your reputation is largely built around your perceived strength over others, you might be more susceptible to putting yourself above them. Remember, strength is also measured in honesty, trustworthiness, and compassion.

5. Do I exercise power over others just because I can?

If you are in a position of authority at work or school, do you milk that for all it’s worth? Sometimes people can slip into a mindset of, “I’ve put in my time, and now I call all the shots.” Do you send the new person at work out for coffee a lot? Do you like the feeling that someone has to do what you say? This can be a warning sign. A better use of your seniority is to become a helpful mentor.

6. Do people trust me with personal problems/come to me for advice?

If you are one who people turn to for help, especially when they feel vulnerable, this might be a gauge for knowing you are not a bully. But if people always treat you with deference and do not trust you with their problems, they might fear you because you might be a bully. Remember trust goes both ways; as you open up to others, people will open up to you.

7. How’s my humor?

A good sense of humor can bring people together. But jokes that focus on reinforcing your supposed superiority over someone else are harmful. Jokes about somebody’s race or sexual preference, or that exploit common stigmas, reinforce toxic cultures of bullying. Even if the joked-at parties seem to be in on the fun, know that it can sometimes be difficult to call out unfunny and mean jokes, both for those being bullied and for bystanders. A bully listens only for the laugh, but you should listen to the person, always mindful of their feelings.

8. Am I a cyber-bully?

Before you send that Facebook message, or post that tweet, consider three important rules of online social interaction:

1. Don’t say anything in writing you wouldn’t say in person.

2. Remember tone and intention are often hidden and misinterpreted in text form.

3. Don’t ever post someone else’s words or images without his or her expressed permission. The Internet is a permanent place.

9. How do I resolve conflicts?

It’s inevitable that you will run into conflicts with other people at some point. Bullies may often avoid respectful conflict, trying instead to establish positions of control over those they clash with through manipulation, passive aggression, and putting people down. Sometimes the putdown is behind someone’s back, but it still establishes destructive hierarchies. It requires bravery and honesty to be upfront and vulnerable when you have conflicts. Bullies look for the easy way out: violence, threats, non-communication.

10. Do I persuade or coerce?

Trying not to be a bully does not mean never having your way. You can be assertive and eloquent in your point of view without becoming manipulative. If you think that somebody is wrong or your idea is better, be persuasive, but not coercive. Never use force or threats to get your way. Instead, be confident enough to be clear with your perspective and generous enough to listen to others’ views. In any team collaboration, let the best ideas win, not just yours.

If any of these questions have given you pause about your interactions with your peers, consider checking out all the many online resources to help make your life bully-free.

Written by Hillary Johnston

A proud mother of four, Hillary is passionate about safety education. She holds a degree in Public Health and Disaster Management. Learn more

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