The Answer to Overcoming Workplace Bullying
7 May 2018 at 8:19 am
Psychologist and behaviourist Adam Blanch answers an important question about overcoming the impacts of workplace bullying.
“Dear Adam, I was badly bullied by a former boss in the past. I have successfully avoided them for the past five years. I am now going to see this person at a function in a few months, and am already dreading it. Why am I still so badly affected by this? What can I do to pull myself together before the function?” – Jenny (not her real name)
It’s a great question and one that is close to my heart. I’ve been on the receiving end of workplace bullying and know just how debilitating it can be, and how long the effects can last. The good news is that you can recover from it and rebuild your confidence, including with the person who persecuted you.
Let’s start by getting an understanding of how it works. What you are suffering is a Post-Traumatic Stress Response. Believe it or not, it is useful. Your brain has come to the very astute conclusion that this person is a persistent threat to your wellbeing and wants to avoid them at all costs. Good brain, doing its job.
The first problem is we often see this avoidance response as a weakness and start demanding of ourselves that we shouldn’t feel this way. This isn’t fair. We wouldn’t hesitate to stay out of a cage that contained a hungry lion, and we wouldn’t judge ourselves for that. Avoiding an enemy that you believe you can’t defeat just makes good sense.
It’s not a weakness, but a strength. At the very least, it helped you escape the situation and has given you some time to recover. Give yourself a big hug and congratulate yourself on having escaped and survived and continued with your life. They hurt you, but they didn’t defeat you.
Context is King
The second part of this problem is context. This person used to have power over you. Their position gave them the power to threaten your employment, your reputation and your future. This is the essence of being bullied by a boss – disparity in power. You wouldn’t have tolerated this behaviour otherwise. You would have either defended yourself or ignored and avoided them. So, in many ways, it is not the person but the situation that hurt you. They certainly misused their power, but the power was never really theirs. It was given to them by their position.
Your avoidance response is to a memory of another time in which you were more vulnerable than you are now. Going into this event you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that they no longer have the position to hurt you. Indeed, their position is now quite vulnerable. All you would have to do is confront them publicly and their reputation could take a big hit. Even giving them the cold shoulder will make other people wonder why. There is nothing bullies fears more than exposure, so they will probably be as nice as pie towards you, in the hope that you don’t “out” them.
This gives you a lot of options: You can be indifferently polite to them, which communicates that you are doing fine and that they are an irrelevance. You can subtly snub them, which lets them know that you haven’t forgotten them but aren’t afraid of them. You can “kill them with kindness”, which clearly communicates that you are over it and in control of this relationship.
One of my clients told me about how they deliberately interrupted their perpetrators conversation to “steal away” the person they were talking to (it was a setup), with a dismissive over the shoulder “oh, hello, nice to see you” as they marched the other person off. They had a profound sense of triumph at having “taken” them down a peg.
So, going in, remember that it was not their power but their position that hurt you.
Finally, there is rebuilding yourself. Bullies attack your identity needs which is our need to believe that we can meet our needs for safety, belonging, autonomy and esteem (See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).
Firstly, they denigrate your sense of competence by constantly finding fault with everything you do and don’t do. Bullies usually set people up to fail with unrealistic and ever-changing expectations, demands for perfection and unclear directions. They want you to fail so they can feel superior to you, which is how they compensate for their fear of being your inferior (this is important).
It’s important to realise that there is no way you could have ever succeeded under this person, no matter how hard you tried or how competent you were. The failure is not yours, but theirs. A good boss sets people up to succeed, gently stretches them, encourages and rewards effort, coaches people in skills development and sensitively addresses their limitations. A bully does the opposite and proves their own incompetence by doing it.
Typically, bullies also attack self-worth by trying to isolate and publicly shame their victims, even turn the rest of the group against them. That’s why bullies have their “favourites” and their “allies”, so they can use them as weapons to socially vilify their targets. They use exclusion as a way of belittling others, particularly others who they see as a threat. Being bullied is actually a sign of your high worth, which they feel threatened by.
Their next line of attack is against your autonomy and your entitlement. A bully must be in control, so they do everything they can to take power away from others. Every decision must go through them, every problem must be solved by them. While they are demanding complete control, they will typically be criticising their team for not being able to solve these problems and make these decisions.
This is the “martyr” presentation. Having completely disabled everyone else, they complain about the “burden” of having to carry all these disabled people. Individuals who resist are often targeted through accusations of “overstepping” their role, their authority or their competence. The aim is to make you doubt your own entitlement to respect, trust and recognition. Boss bullies particularly attack people with a healthy sense of entitlement, because those without it aren’t so much of a threat to them.
The worst bullies attack our sense of being a good person. They are constantly alleging or implying that we are lazy, selfish, irresponsible, arrogant, ignorant and careless. Every mistake and every failure (which they have set us up for) signifies an underlying flaw in our character. The very clever bullies pretend to be our friends who are trying to help us correct the character flaw that they are constantly accusing us of. The effect of this is that people start blaming themselves for how they are being mistreated.
“I must be bad, weak, stupid, or useless that my boss has to keep trying to help me, but I never get any better”.
Another term for this is gaslighting, because we end up feeling just a little bit crazy, like we don’t know what’s real anymore. We can’t resolve the discrepancy between the authentic anger we feel about being mistreated, and the shame and guilt we are made to feel when we believe it’s our own fault.
This misattribution of blame to themselves is what keeps so many people stuck in the trauma of being bullied and abused. In most clients who have come to me as victims of bullying, their recovery begins when they can clearly say “it’s not my fault. I didn’t want it, I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t invite it and I didn’t deserve it”.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously stated that “people can only put you down if you agree with them”. The trick to getting over being bullied is to stop agreeing with the negative characterisations they have made of us, and to put the blame where it belongs: back with them. We also need to stop expecting that we should have been able to beat them or to not be affected by it.
They had the position to hurt us, which made us vulnerable to their misuse of power, not a weakness in ourselves. There is no shame in being hurt by the abuse of others and no shame in not wanting to get hurt again. The shame belongs to the bully, who deserves our pity but not our respect.
So, Jenny – hold your head high and remember that even though they knocked you down, you got back up again and you can be stronger for it. To quote some advertising I saw recently: “Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but I am never defeated”.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a psychologist and behaviourist who provides practical insights and support to strengthen leaders and their teams. He is a practitioner within The Xfactor Collective social impact practitioner community. For more information and contact details visit www.good-psychology.com
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.