High performers at work are more likely to be bullied, psychologist says

It's not easy being the employee of the month.

Exhibiting hard work and passion for the job can be tough to keep up day in and day out — but many people don't mind putting in the extra effort to get in the good graces of their employer.

Unfortunately, the boss isn't the only one watching.

According to workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman, high performing employees are more likely to get bullied at work.

She joined host Rick Cluff on CBC's The Early Edition.

Rick Cluff: How is it high performers are more likely to be targets of the workplace bully?

Jennifer Newman: Employees with high cognitive ability can experience more victimization. And so too can staff who work exceptionally hard.

They are more likely to be the focus of attention and recognition — which makes them stand out.

They tend to be good at their jobs and have good-to excellent evaluations. They exhibit high levels of competence and are relied on to get things done.

Their work is of high quality, and accurate.

They provide good customer service — and this combination of qualities is linked to the likelihood of being bullied.

What is it about workers who bully that leads them to target high performers?

They are keenly aware of the high performer's attributes. At the same time, they tend to overvalue their own contributions at work.

They then compare themselves to the high performer — and inevitably come up short.

They may feel inferior and 'less-than' which leads to feelings of shame, humiliation, envy and jealousy, and an increase in resentment and hostility toward the high performer — which can set up a desire to undermine, dominate, sabotage and somehow harm their colleague.

Cognitively, they justify their behaviour by blaming the high performer for their bullying behaviour. They convince themselves the high performer is a brown noser or is sucking up to higher-ups or is getting undeserved perks and special treatment

This all occurs in an effort to restore their damaged self-image. So, by harming the successful co-worker, they attempt to restore and maintain their good opinion of themselves.

The bullying continues because restoring one's self image by harming another is a temporary fix.

What can be done to curb workplace bullying?

To prevent high performer bullying, organizations can play a role in monitoring high performers' experiences at work.

Ensure they are supervised by effective leaders. Recognize the signs of abusive, ineffective or negligent leadership. Tell-tale signs, like limelight grabbing or subordinates who speak little in meetings, are indicators.

Lots of absences, lateness, turnover, or increased disability claims in certain areas are hints. Supervisors who turn a blind eye to coworker-to-coworker bullying is another symptom.

Use staff feedback about leaders, including exit interviews where workers are asked about their experience with managers.

Develop the teams your high performers work in — teams in which everyone shares in the success tend not to bully high performers.

Look at the environment the high performer works in — is it one where status and prestige is valued over collaboration?

If competition is rewarded and a dog-eat-dog mentality is a common mindset, the likelihood of a high performing staff person being bullied goes up.

This interview has been edited and condensed