Helping You Cope With & Stop



Workplace Bullies vs Difficult People: The Difference?

Two of the top questions we receive are:

How do I know if this is a bully or a difficult person?

How do I approach or confront a bully vs a difficult person?

Here’s the difference: Knowing if it is a bullying situation or an unsuspecting conflict situation is key as approaching them is almost 180 different from one another. You will want to make sure.

Bullying is: deliberate, disrespectful, repeated behavior toward another for the bully’s gratification.

Workplace bullying is deliberate; not accidental.  Difficult people may or may not be deliberate; they may be unaware. A bully is absolutely aware of what they are doing. Here is a question for you: Has this person in question been able to treat others with respect and kindness but has not treated you in the same respectful and kind way? If they’ve been “able” in other circumstances, then they are “able”.

Still not convinced? (If) you approached this person in a respectful, non-defensive way with regard to your perception of their behaviour toward you, and they in turn react without showing any interest or regard for your circumstances, then there is a good chance they are more concerned with their own needs and they are not committed to seeking to understand yours. Both bullies and difficult people can be defensive; however, some difficult people as opposed to bullies, if approached well, have the ability to see another person’s needs; it’s called humanity and maturity.

Bullies are out for power-over at the expense of another. They need a target in order to complete their mission.  Difficult people are not necessarily out to harm another; they are out to protect their own needs, and you might just happen to be in their way of their self-preservation. They are not usually “out-to-get-you”, so the intent and motivation is different. Experiencing these disrespectful behaviors is still frustrating and hurtful, but being clear on motivations can assist in gaining back some strength.

You can possibly reason and negotiate with a difficult person.  You cannot reason or negotiate with a workplace bully.

Most people/targets want to hold on to the belief that “people are basically good”, and that if they were to give “feedback” to another, that the person receiving the feedback would take a sincere interest.  We somehow think “if I just say it this way” or if I bring them a coffee … then… they’ll come around.

Most bosses, in their attempt to help an employee with a bullying situation or difficult person situation, often offer this advice:  “Treat them the way you want to be treated” or “extend the olive branch” and they’ll somehow come around and be enlightened.

This influencing strategy can work – but only with minor difficult situations where the difficult person has a healthy enough self image to be able to receive feedback in order to come around.  Let me be clear – influencing techniques such as these can work with the good natured mature individuals whose heart sincerely seeks a win-win.

Now that you know this, you can try this influencing strategy of extending the “olive branch” for minor offences, but do not expect results when dealing with workplace bullying behavior.

If you face moderate difficult behavior, and in some very rare cases of minor bullying, you can approach the person with a crucial conversation.  A crucial conversation is an attempt to reach out and share what you need/want, with the hope of receiving acknowledgement of your situation and an agreement between parties.

Note:  Many people get confused here.  If you are certain you are facing a bully, or someone who is highly oppositional, this influencing strategy will NOT work – you cannot rationalize with a bully, and attempting to open up a dialogue will only expose you. Remember: crucial conversations only work when both parties are interested!

Also, note that workplace bullying situations usually require an intervention with a higher authority to enforce and uphold decisions. If you are not certain if you are in a bullying situation and you are hesitant as to your approach to influence or use an intervention, you could:

Try the crucial conversation influencing strategy very carefully by testing for interest first – if there is interest in having a conversation, you have a difficult situation that hopefully can be resolved using traditional conflict resolution.  If it doesn’t work, you likely have an oppositional or workplace bullying situation, where the individual is interested in retaliating and aiming to control you once you are exposed.  Make your attempt carefully and back off if you experience resistance such as denial, dismissal, ignoring etc: these are classic oppositional tactics. Further exposing yourself is not wise.

If you know this is workplace bullying behavior, (workplace bullying behavior is deliberate, not accidental, disrespectful and repeated toward an individual that the bully derives pleasure from hurting), then proceed to intervention – do not pass GO, do not collect $200…

Lastly, note this once you identify if your situation is workplace bullying behavior: remember that this individual is incapable of any meaningful feedback. Remember they usually create more pressure for a target when the target introduces an issue that needs to be resolved. Remember to fully internalize the fact that you cannot reach out and rationalize with a bully.  Period.

There is a lot to learn as with anything important such as your career, life, well-being. Your next step is to become fully  aware of all of your options and possible strategies so you are not stuck in self-doubt and illusion, thinking that if you are “nice”, this person will come around. Your education will be your empowerment.


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12 responses to “Workplace Bullies vs Difficult People: The Difference?”

  1. Anonymous Me says:

    Individuals, the work relationships are superficially fine, the intentional bullying comes as a group. I have been unable to identify the source, yet feel it could be 3 people spreading the behavior to others. Should I continue to ignore their tactics or try to identify the individual(s).

  2. Michael says:

    What if the boss is the bully

  3. Bully Free at Work: Valerie Cade says:

    An intervention occurs when the target does not wish to have a mediation (where the target, mediator and accused meet). An intervention is where someone of higher authority meets separately with the target and separately with the accused. In addition, a (good) intervention is timely, protects against retribution and hears both sides as well as solicits witnesses. Ideally, it focuses on future behaviours and standards and ensures they are enforced. An intervention may also include support for the target and coaching/behavioural intervention for the accused or bully (if it is deemed bullying). Interventions are specialty situations and it is best to solicit the educated assistance from someone unbiased and from outside the organization.

  4. Christine Stewart says:

    And now my name has appeared!!

  5. Christine Stewart says:

    My email HAS appeared can you please remove. I can see it below

  6. troubled says:

    This article is very helpful. It says to proceed to intervention. What all does intervention entail? I have identified that this is bullying.

  7. Olubusola says:

    Hi Valerie, good work you are doing. I am an African student, my pg thesis was on workplace bullying in Nigeria, I got an A. It was very helpful and insightful the documented works on line, couldn’t find a single book in my country on the subject. i remember an article you had on your blog….? on the difference between workplace bullying and harassment was very helpful because it helped me clarify to the IDI respondents from my population sample that asked me same question. I can’t seem to find the article again. Can you direct me to where the article is please. Thank you

  8. says:

    The person I was being bullied by would just twist anything I said in order to suit himself. Conversations with him were impossible. Also you are dead right about it not working to “turn the other cheek”. That is what the group told me to do – so I tried it – he accepted an olive branch from me and then returned it three weeks later with a nasty note saying he would boycott anything I suggested in the group. The group were very weak and eventually I had to leave even though I had been there for 15 harmonious years before he came into the group.

  9. Bully Free at Work: Valerie Cade says:

    Very true, knowing the motivation of “why” the bully acts out doesn’t necessarily remove the pain – and the pain is very real. Sometimes it can help a target be reminded that that bully acts out not because the target is “less than” but more so that because the bully acts “less than”. It would be great to be able to remove the pain experienced and remembered. Support and care to all those who have suffered in this regard.

  10. Rosemary Slater says:

    The problem is that being on the receiving end of both a sociopath or someone who is socially abusive is just as painful. Knowing the motivation doesn’t remove the pain.

  11. Bully Free at Work: Valerie Cade says:

    Yes, there are many correlations between the two. Lack of empathy, inability to listen and receive feedback as well as ability to “say sorry” sincerely. But you are on the right path, they have many behaviorial tendencies in common!

  12. anaisninja says:

    The bully sounds a lot like a sociopath. What correlations have you found between bullies and sociopaths?

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Valerie Cade, CSP is a Workplace Bullying Expert, Speaker and Author of "Bully Free at Work: What You Can Do To Stop Workplace Bullying Now!" which has been distributed in over 100 countries worldwide. For presentations and consulting on workplace bullying prevention and respectful workplace implementation, go to

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