Workplace Bullies Target Self-Directed Coworkers Most

Araya Baker, M.Phil.Ed., Ed.M.
6 min readJun 28, 2023

The eliminationist instinct to “level down” creative peers is covert but common.

Husna Miskandar/Unsplash

Psychology Today cross-published this essay.

Key Points

  • Self-directed employees can become hypervisible for challenging authority and the status quo.
  • Years of adapting to invalidating or neglectful schooling often builds character in self-directed employees.
  • Research shows self-directedness correlates with purposefulness, resourcefulness, and self-acceptance.
  • Successful self-directed employees may be equally vulnerable to bullying, rooted in envy, as scapegoats.

The Hypervisibility of Self-Directedness

The most likely target of workplace bullying is the kind of worker many employers dream of: workers who are highly self-sufficient, judicious, and creative, and who demonstrate internal motivation, possess a benevolent worldview, and refrain from office politics and one-upmanship — in a word, self-directed.

By the time self-directed employees reach the world of work, oftentimes they have overcome numerous barriers within traditional secondary and higher education institutions. It’s not uncommon for highly self-directed learners — many of whom are highly creative and gifted — to struggle throughout schooling.

Over time, however, scraping and crawling out of the pitfalls and trenches and valleys builds character.

Research suggests self-directedness correlates with purposefulness, resourcefulness, and self-acceptance.

These character traits may show up in self-directed employees in myriad ways that seem questionable at first glance, but upon closer inspection, offer hidden benefits.

For instance, self-directed employees may fear failure less — since they’ve likely experienced so much of it already — and, thus, experiment or step up to leadership opportunities more.

Or, compared to colleagues, they may pursue more diverse and innovative sources of professional development. They may also succeed at striking a balance between team-building and professional individuation, boosting morale and supporting others, while also insulating themselves from groupthink.

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The bottom line is that despite sometimes testing others’ patience, self-directed employees can add immense value and reliability to a team, putting their credibility on the line to test out their new ideas and staying in the ring when the going gets tough.

Unfortunately, though, self-directedness comes with downsides that can jeopardize employment.

Perhaps above all else, being self-directed can involve [inadvertently] bucking authority along the path of disregarding the tried-and-true formula, script, or template for “success.” Leadership that is more conventional than innovative, or more demanding than humanizing, may view this as too high-stakes.

Delivering feedback to higher-ups without the sugar-coating of toxic niceness that an authoritarian or paternalistic dean, director, executive, manager, etc. might feel entitled to, is one example of how self-directedness might backfire. The number of ways one can step on the wrong toes is infinite.

But another downside of self-directedness in the workplace that is equally important, yet severely under-discussed, is the increased likelihood of coworker abuse that is peer-to-peer, not top-down.

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Coworker Abuse & Self-Directed Employees

Twenty percent of workplace bullies target coworkers with their exact same position, rank, or title, according to the 2021 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. Yet, most research on workplace bullying still focuses on top-down workplace bullying, not peer-level bullying, also known as lateral violence.

This oversight has two major implications for self-directed employees.

The more obvious implication, as discussed above, concerns backlash from challenging institutional or organizational power dynamics that are authoritarian, hierarchical, or paternalistic.

Self-directed employees may never become the teacher’s pet, so to speak, a reality that can lead to hypervisibility and, in turn, inevitably becoming an organization’s scapegoat. Even newer colleagues may immediately pick up on the labeling of self-directed employees as rule-breakers and troublemakers.

The less obvious implication, ironically, is the opposite of stigmatization or ostracization: favor.

As previously mentioned, self-directed employees often come to the workplace with years of experience negotiating their needs within the limitations of stuffy and traditionalist institutions.

Time and time again, they’ve learned that the typical person fails to comprehend them upon first glance or interaction. Consequently, they now know the importance of forging ahead without validation, while also disarming detractors by speaking the language of the dominant culture. These adaptive traits can generate some impressive feats, like self-directed employees undoing things only to rebuild them better.

Such outcomes draw attention because they’re unexpected, and the resulting hypervisibility, coupled with applause and validation from colleagues and leadership, can stir up envy in others.

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This is where the trouble begins for self-directed workers who manage to defy expectations.

Research suggests that when envy is malicious, rather than benign, it can drive workplace bullying.

Benign envy motivates us to improve. It does not limit our ability to envision the object of our envy — an award, a degree, a promotion, etc. — as attainable. Thus, we can constructively channel self-comparison into self-investment, and “level up.” Malicious envy, on the other hand, can compel people to self-regulate the pain of inadequacy and self-comparison, by “leveling down” peers.

“Why them and not me?” seems to be the refrain of malicious envy, a statement that reflects an external locus of control, low self-efficacy, and the absence of a growth mindset.

Based on what we know about the neuroscience of envy, this mindset is dangerous. According to research, envy can increase the likelihood of correctly remembering details about an envied person, much more than for someone not envied, but even to the point that envy interferes with rational cognition.

Self-directed employees already stand out, but those who also seem to have found their calling, their purpose, their spark, end up becoming doubly hyper-visible, especially if leadership resonates with them.

While favor for the underdog seems like an advantage, it may become the very reason some self-directed employees are envied by colleagues who perceive themselves as less favored, experienced, or credentialed. Those self-directed workers who are frequently recognized, or perhaps publicly known as subject matter experts in their specialty area, may be at highest risk.

Under those circumstances, these rare employees may become victims of relational aggression — behavior that “intends to harm others through deliberate manipulation of their social standing and relationships” — three features of which include excluding someone, gossiping, or purposefully withdrawing acknowledgment of another’s presence (e.g., “the silent treatment”).

If envious coworkers cannot challenge gifted employees outright, they do so underhandedly with covert tactics intended to regain power and control by diverting attention from the target and chipping away at their credibility and self-esteem.

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Implications for Leaders

So, what can employers do about this peculiar form of workplace bullying?

Above all, I would recommend humanizing your team. Communicate that while you applaud employees’ credentials and competence, you also hired each and every one of them because you like them as people and because their character — not just their merit — adds value to the organizational culture and mission.

To that end, infuse humility into your organizational culture by humanizing yourself as a leader. Make it crystal clear that you do not feel ashamed of your mistakes — that, actually, they are to be expected. Practice what you preach by inviting feedback and expressing genuine appreciation for it.

And if certain employees attract more attention simply by virtue of being more outspoken or risk-taking — as self-directed workers tend to be — share a tip with them: research suggests that occasionally disclosing failures and mistakes is a proven way to deflect envy.

In the end, preventing a crabs-in-a-barrel culture hinges on the value leaders place on community-building and fostering a non-judgmental atmosphere where employees trust that they can show up fully, without the caveat of having to censor, compartmentalize, or conform according to norms that invalidate who they are now, who they’ve been in the past, and who they’re becoming.

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Araya Baker, M.Phil.Ed., Ed.M.

Araya Baker is a counselor, suicidologist, and policy analyst.