We have a list of manipulative language techniques that we developed from 25 years of experience with organizations, which we use in our workshops and incorporated into the book. It includes techniques such as intentional deception, disguised agendas, name-dropping and spinning information. We’ve never claimed it to be comprehensive, but even so, we were surprised to have missed one so obvious—bullying.

Backlash: Women Bullying Women”, an article in the New York Times business section, made us realize it belongs on the list. The report contends that women generally pick on other women, but it’s likely they learned some of the finer points from male bullies, who don’t tend to discriminate based on gender. Bullying is seen by many women as a way to advance to a limited number of senior positions protected by the glass ceiling. According to Catalyst, a nonprofit research group, more than 50 percent of management, professional and related occupations are women, and only 1 percent of directors and officers in Fortune 500 companies are women.

Nearly 40 percent of all workers say they have personally experienced bullying, according to a study conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Even so, it generally is ignored by employers, even though it directly affects bottom line business issues in healthcare costs, turnover and productivity loss.

A case in point is Selina, who was featured in the March edition of Inc. magazine. She   is a self-described bully who reformed when she realized the damage it was doing to the business. While her aggressive, fist-pounding style as a sale manager was tolerated because she got results, it took a toll on the people she worked with. In some cases, employees became physically ill from the stress of working with her.

When she became CEO of a wi-fi start up in California in 2004, her bullying tactics came back to bite her in the behind. She found she couldn’t recruit top talent because no one wanted to work for her, no matter how attractive she made her offers. And after she finally found people to hire, she began to see that she couldn’t “build a successful company with nervous people.” 

Bullying is another glaring example of how everyday conversations affect organizational culture and business results. Using language to manipulate others is a direct descendant of the thinking and organizing principals still found in many businesses today. It is grounded in two myths:

1. We must hold others accountable for success.

2. Competition brings out the best in people and gets superior results.

It is impossible to hold another person accountable. Accountability is something each of us chooses. The freedom we have, and the consequences that come with the choices we make, is one of the blessings and curses of being human.

And competition? An abundance of data shows that collaboration and cooperation yield far better results. (Author Alfie Kohn devotes more than 65 pages of his book No Contest citing such references.)

As a CEO, Selina eventually realized that her bullying techniques were counterproductive, and hurting the bottom line. She might win, but the business would lose. Self-awareness about how you are using manipulative language and techniques is a useful first step. But she had the courage and will to change her intentions and actions. Among her changes: incorporating group decision-making to force herself to consider others’ opinions. She stops everything when employees come into her office so they get her full attention. And she is unflinchingly transparent about every aspect of performance, good and bad. She credits that in part for the success of the company, which in 2007 had 147 employees and generated nearly $40 million in revenue.

Clearly, bullying doesn’t pay.

If you want to weigh in on this issue, check out Kathy Caprino’s survey on LinkedIn.