Earlier this month, The Guardian took a fairly in-depth look at workplace bullying and asked readers to share their stories. The results ranged from being excluded from workplace cliques to being punished by management for reporting harassment.
In the past few years, it’s become clear that bullying isn’t just the stuff of middle school playgrounds but a serious workplace problem. According to a CareerBuilder survey, as reported in the Guardian, “bullying included being falsely accused of mistakes, being subjected to the silent treatment, being the subject of unfair gossip or assaults on your reputation, having professional performance belittled or diminished in front of peers, and having someone steal credit for your work.”
So what does this have to do with you and your MBA applications? Qualities associated with bullies—aggression, power, employing unscrupulous methods to seize or stay in control—happen to be some of the same stereotypes that people associate with MBAs. The stereotypes, even if true, won’t get you very far with the admissions committee. Candidates who come off as overly boastful and not self-aware—classic bully qualities—will raise red flags and may end up getting passed over.
Here are a few things you can do in your MBA applications and interviews to ensure that you don’t appear like a potential workplace bully:
Speak diplomatically about co-workers and bosses. Some of the questions posed in application essays and interviews are designed to see how you deal with setbacks. You might get asked to talk about a failed project, or about a boss or co-worker you had trouble working with. To ensure that you don’t seem like someone who assaults the reputation of co-workers or blames others for mistakes, it’s important to make sure that the focus of these stories is on you. You can acknowledge the role of others in the failure, but concentrate primarily on what you could have done differently and what you learned from the experience.
Share credit for success. One of the hallmarks of workplace bullying is taking credit for others’ work. To make sure that you don’t come across as someone who does this, it’s important to acknowledge the role of your teammates when discussing accomplishments and success stories. This isn’t to say that you need to go into great detail about the help you received from teammates— after all, the application is about you. But if you can talk about someone you paired well with or a team you led that went above and beyond, then the admissions committee will see that you are comfortable with shared success and are a good team player—other important qualities for gaining admission.
Highlight your emotional intelligence. Admissions committees are not only interested in knowing that you’re able to get results. They’ll want to understand how you get results. While a workplace bully browbeats subordinates and co-workers into producing results, more effective leaders take the time to understand their colleagues’ motivations and ensure that everyone has a stake in the outcome. Share with the committee examples that illustrate the latter.
Beware the group interview. Several top MBA programs—Wharton and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business among them—invite candidates to participate in a group interview. Succeeding in this setting can be a tricky balancing act. You want your ideas and opinions to be heard, yet if you constantly speak over the rest of the group, you’ll come off as a bully. Try to demonstrate your listening skills and make sure that you comment on others’ ideas as opposed to steering the discussion your own way.
Many MBA candidates who seem like workplace bullies probably aren’t bullies at all. They just take an overly aggressive approach on their applications, believing that this is what the admissions committee wants to see. However, before approaching your applications, it’s a good idea to take a look at the bullying behaviors listed at the beginning of this blog post and honestly assess if you’ve ever engaged in similar actions. If so, reassessing your management style and workplace behavior should be a fundamental part of your MBA application process.