Distinguishing Between Personality Differences and Bullies

Where does toleration and flexibility for diverse personalities in the workplace end and an acknowledgement of bullying begin, and how does a manager have these conversations?

I have many characteristics of a Type B personality. If it’s strictly up to me, I’m OK with rolling deadlines and don’t need perfectionism. For that reason, Type A personalities in the workplace can be misinterpreted by me as displaying bullying behaviors.

Type A Personality or Bully?

Or, the question becomes, is my adverse reaction to some of the behaviors associated with Type A personalities being misinterpreted? According to Verywell Mind: “Free-floating hostility or aggressiveness is an additional trait of TABP [Type A Behavior Pattern]. This may show up as impatience, rudeness, being easily upset over small things, or ‘having a short fuse’…” Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., writes.

With that in mind, was it my imagination that a Type A personality I experienced working with appeared to take joy at enforcing unrealistic, unreasonable deadlines? I assumed it was my imagination or misinterpretation until a colleague, who also worked with that Type A personality, noticed the same thing.

That’s when I decided that rather than being an innocent personality trait, the setting of unreasonable deadlines could be considered a form of workplace bullying.

Are Unreasonable Deadlines Related to Classic Bullying Qualities?

Harvard Business Review does not specifically list unreasonable deadlines as a characteristic of a workplace bully in this article by Ludmila N. Praslova, Ron Carucci, and Caroline Stokes, but cites behaviors I think are related. For example, the article refers to the bully’s tendency to try to make others suffer, a desire to sabotage colleagues, and to “gaslight,” or make a person feel like they are going crazy.

“What? Is that unreasonable? I thought we discussed this. Didn’t you read the contract I sent you last week that mentioned the project needed to be completed in one month?” the bully might say to you. Meanwhile, you know very well that either the bully never shared the information with you, or shared it in a way that required you to go searching for it in a long, dense document, which the bully knew you wouldn’t do.

Having the Conversation with Suspected Bully and Victimized Colleague

Where does toleration and flexibility for diverse personalities in the workplace end and an acknowledgement of bullying begin, and how does a manager have these conversations?

“Sarah is too passive. She needs to be more aggressive to get this work done,” the suspected bully/Type A personality might say. “I have to make sure the work gets done. I don’t want to be the bad guy here. I just want to make sure we give our clients what we promised.”

A manager trained to distinguish between Type A personalities and garden-variety bullies than could respond: “Kate, I understand what you’re saying. You’re right, we have to deliver for our clients. However, I question whether you, as the project manager, fulfilled your responsibility to set reasonable deadlines with our creative team. A key part of your job is to manage client expectations, and ensure we have the human resources to deliver what our sales team promises. At this point, we will have to look into getting more manpower on this project, and if we can’t, you will have to go back to the client, apologize, acknowledge your mistake, and see what we can do to otherwise accommodate them.”

The Type A personalities I have experienced loathe imperfection. Forcing them to see that their colleague’s failure to deliver was ultimately their own shortcoming—their unreasonable deadlines—provides them with a memorable lesson. They learn that their boss is not going to give them the desired response for a missed deadline on a project they are managing. Their competitive, aggressive spirit might gain satisfaction from making a person they see as a rival look bad. The manager in this case has seen through that tactic and identified that the root cause of the problem was the project manager herself, who set the employee up for failure with an unreasonable, undeliverable deadline.

How do you train managers to distinguish between personality differences and bullies? How do you then also train them to act when a bully is identified?