February 23rd, 2012

Bullies at Work: Bushwhackers by Design


People targeted by bullies for humiliation and degrading treatment always get a head start because their initial attacks surprise targets. You may ask, always surprise? Yes, they get bushwhacked.

It’s explained by the stark contrast in worldviews and developed personalities of the two, bully and target.

Most bullies are verbal jousters, on the attack and aggressive by nature. This comes from a lifetime of rewards for “beating the other guy” in a myriad of ways. They have learned that a “winning” strategy is to strike first, to verbally pounce so the other person is on the defensive. It’s not about giving people choices or inviting participation. Rather, it’s about boxing them in with no options.

Sometimes, we think they have to rehearse the nastiest thing to say that instantly destabilizes another person. With practice and age, we think it comes spontaneously to them. The only time they act in a deferential way to others is when those others have more power than them or model aggression so that they are the bully’s idols. Otherwise, everyone else is beneath their station in life.

On the other hand, targets were socialized to be more genteel and polite. They are “nice.” Interactions, they were taught, should begin with “icebreakers” and niceties, chit-chat to warm up before diving into discussions over serious matters. They consider it rude to move too quickly or too bluntly to an important point.

So, when the blustering, bold, arrogant, aggressive bully plows into a target with opening line attacks, neglecting any semblance of respectful interactions, targets are taken aback. Nasty comeback lines are beyond their grasp, and that is what is required to put bullies back on their heels.

Unfortunately, while backing up, bullies figuratively steadily invade the target’s world. Targets ruminate about the motivation for what, to them, is shocking behavior. While the cognitive wheels are turning, they are frozen into a “deer in the headlight” numb mask. The bully reads correctly that no counter-attack is forthcoming, and the toxic exploitative relationship begins with the target always one step behind.

Surprises are what give magic its entertainment value. Surprises are for birthdays, and then only positive ones.

But surprises of unrelenting incidents that trigger stress levels beyond a person’s coping ability are the antithesis of fun. They are horror. They create terror. In so many ways, bullies are organizational terrorists generating fear that ruins health, careers and families.

Trauma-inducing environments have three properties — the deprivation of control over situations, denial of security and safety, and unpredictable onset of negative events. That is why work trauma from severe bullying can generate PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). The element of surprise, unpredictability coupled with an absence of control, is an important element in PTSD, whether the source is familial violence between spouses, siblings, at war, or at work. The traumatic experience is similar.

Because the perpetrating aggressor is in charge of the timing and location of her or his assaults as well as who will be targeted, the target should never feel responsible. Society harps about “there are two sides” and everyone has to take “personal responsibility.”

Balderdash! The responsibility is the bully’s alone. If you are a target, stop blaming yourself for the very natural and scary reaction to surprising assaults. You didn’t ask for it. And unless you possess your own ability to bury the bully in a matched counterattack, you could not defend yourself.

Don’t beat yourself up or feel guilty for being surprised. You are the better person.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 at 5:12 pm and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. Jay Jacobus says:

    This raises an important issue for people who are NOT bullied. They should be prepared for unpleasant surprises. Employees should think of actions that they can take IF they get bullied.

    They can’t buy bully insurance. It doesn’t exist. They can’t go to the police. The police won’t help. They can’t attack the bully. They can’t go to HR. They can’t sue.

    They can quit. So they better consider that option and be prepared.

    There is only one option. People should make that this option is realistic.

    Do not allow bullies to cut off this option through isolation, scapegoating, misdirection, discredit or corruption.

    How does one protect himself from career sabotaging action from the bully?

    That must be against the law.

  2. J. says:

    I have experienced this exactly as described in the article. When I was essentially forced into uneven “mediation” with my two bullies (dean and department chair), the primary bully, the dean, did little more than shout weird accusations she could not support. Her claims were pure fiction, but she seemed to firmly believe them (making the experience even more freakish than just listening to her shout at me). Each time she was called upon to respond to a point in the mediation process, she began with a long stream of accusations. When I asked for proof, she ignored me or refused proof. It was obvious that she intended to put me on the defensive so she would never find herself in a real give and take discussion.

    However, I have seen the same dean treat those she believes are useful to her, or who hold some power over her, politely. I have seen her ooze flattery on those who have something she wants. But, if she gets angry the cracks in the phony professional veneer begin to show. She hates them as much as she hates her subordinates, but she works to hide it. It is obvious that she believes others are beneath her.

    I am not sure I would describe myself as “nice.” I practiced law in the past and I can be aggressive when needed, within the appropriate professional construct. However, I am ethical and try to behave professionally. I try to be polite. I do not engage in political manipulations or game playing. I am convinced my ex-dean’s bizarre hatred of me was due primarily to my strong sense of ethics and fairness (and because I was more qualified for her job than she is).

  3. Lovy Jones says:

    I was always surprised by my boss’ rudeness towards me. I never quite believed it. That “deer in the headlight” feeling describes it perfectly.
    I believe in being polite. Horrible mistake, obviously.

  4. Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing this post. What I like about this posts is “Trauma-inducing environments have three properties — the deprivation of control over situations, denial of security and safety, and unpredictable onset of negative events. That is why work trauma from severe bullying can generate PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder”. This is true and sad. It’s sad that bullies never understand how their actions causes a great deal of trauma to the victims.

    • Even more sad, Ann, is that some bullies are sadists and fully realize their impact on others — and like it.

      • kachina says:

        I would have a hard time believing this if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes in a professional environment…an individual trusted with responsibility for protecting vulnerable workers and clients, well educated…and lighting up like a jack-o-lantern at the prospect of having lies and innuendo believed while a hapless target is stunned and defenceless against baseless accusations she cannot possibly predict and cannot defend against since they have no basis in reality. It was truly the ugliest thing I encountered in a nursing career in mental health that exposed me to a LOT of the ugliness and seedy underside associated with desperate and marginalized populations!

  5. momatend says:

    Thank you for this article. People have no idea how hurtful it is when they say things like toughen up, you’re just acting like a victim or bullying builds character or makes you stronger. Thank you for showing a compassionate view of what a target of this goes through. You hit the nail on the head with this article in regards to what it feels like to go through this. As a target of mobbing/bullying you feel like your trust in people and your sense of justice has been stolen from you and then you get blamed for it as people mock you over and over.

  6. Vita says:

    What a timely article as I am currently on a leave of absence from my position due to my unpredictable, unstable work environment. I have been suffering with depression over my boss who is a bully, a control freak and not qualified to do her job. I have been wracking my brain trying to understand what I was doing to deserve such treatment. Can you tell me how to handle semi-normal co-workers who team up with the bully to avoid being bullied themselves?

    Thank you so much for this article, I’m going out now to buy your book!

  7. Cheska says:

    My boss has been the victim of workplace bullying. Over the period of 9 months, I have seen a very strong, confident, talented, and innovative educational administrator be slowly picked at, kicked down, and undermined. She has finally decided, at the advise of a counselor and her family, to take some time to heal up. She has even been beating herself up about not being able to overcome this, having overcome many traumas throughout her life. I definitely support her in her decision; she’s like an older sister to me.

    I feel somewhat vulnerable, since I may be having to report to her boss myself. But I’ve made the decision not to allow her (or her secretary, who is often charged with doing the “interrogating”) to bully me and take me to the state my dear boss has been enduring. I could use tips on protecting myself. Thus far, I’ve referred the
    “interrogator” to HR for more information.

    Since we are an academic institution, we are not allowed to contact the Board of Trustees with the problem, but must go through the “chain of command,” which leads us, of course, to the bully herself and her supportive president, who will likely “shield” the BOT from finding out there is a real problem.

    Thanks for any comments from someone who is in a similar position.

  8. tarabeatty says:

    The bullying (later, mobbing) was a huge surprise to me because my supervisor had spent years pretending to be my friend; she became not only a close colleague and respected supervisor to me, but also a key friend whom I shared my life, interests and time with outside of work. When the problems started and I began percieving scapegoating by virtue of having an important technical role on a complex and stressful project, it was tough but I figured it’d pass, and that stress and chaos were ‘normal’ given tight deadlines, high demands and lack of coverage. My supervisor confided in me her ‘fears’ and ‘inadequacies’ and conveyed her ‘struggles’ and ‘lack os support’ from her boss but commended me for my ability to take the reigns and handle the stressful situation, and voiced her gratitude even saying that I was the only reason she didn’t just leave, the ‘bright spot’ in her workday. Wow, so what kind of lousy friend would I be to speak up against her when her recurring incompetence caused so much additional stress and obstacles and how could i put more pressure on this person who was clearly struggling to do her best (or so i was made to believe). I found out that was all an act and that she never had my back and that she wasn’t ‘struggling’ at all. As i started to be scapegoated further, of course keeping mouth shut to ‘take one for the team’ and remain her rock… dedicated as employee AND friend, eventually her bizarre behavior, and breakdown of my credibility, shifted to the point where I was beginning to realize what a chump I had been… the sacrificial lamb… blamed, scapegoated, all ills and chaos linked back to me; she denied even things she clearly admitted in discussions with me (meetings where i brought things to her attn such as her behavior fueled by underlying hostility toward me was setting negative example impacting my ability to form positive relationship with my coworker, at the time a new hire – a flaw she admitted openly on a hiking trip to the desert we as friends – said she realized she needed to be more aware to not let that occur…. Oh it doesnt matter the specifics; i have hundreds of examples and that is just one. My point is: when the bully poses as a friend and shows vulnerability and infiltrates not only every corner of personal and professional life, then target finds out it was all a malevolent, evil, ongoing and very effective tactic for bully to position herself for optimal destruction of target (as I experienced) then that sure is not only a ‘surprise’ but painful, as i still mourn the friend that never existed; devastating doesnt even describe what I feel; vulnerable as this malicious evil entity who has more info about me than my own mother (cuz I shared years of my life not only working with but trusting her as a friend) continues to inflict destruction. Imagine my surprise. I still cry when I separate the evil and the hoax and recall times i shared with the ‘friend’ who never existed… the ‘friend’ who was nothing but a farce to gain info and position herself to later destroy me, and use every bit of what she learned along the way posing ad friend to fabricate lies to convince anyone/everyone to believe the altered reality, painting me as somebody awful; someone who is largely opposite of who I am in almost every way, yet i suffer the consequences and loss. Imagine the surprise. This was my trusted ‘friend’ and supervisor whom I cared about a great deal. But that ‘friend’ and picture she paints to the world is as big a farce as the altered reality she paint as who I am. She was like an emotional vampire and sucked all my life out and took it over, then painted me as all the horrible things she actually is. How do people survive this?

  9. WilliamOckhamensis says:

    Academia is terrible – secretive, arbitrary, a haven for bullies and little recourse. In my case, there was a man who had designs on the research center I was running, and who for years did everything he could to trip me up. Like not notifying me of a meeting, then criticizing me for missing it; driving a wedge between me and one of my grad students by keeping me out of the loop when critical decisions were being made about her, blocking me from creating an MA program then criticizing me for not creating it, generously heaping more TAs on me than I had asked for so he could later claim I was being “carried”, etc etc. As soon as he became department chair, he had me fired, on the basis of a secret dossier and meetings behind closed doors, followed by a kangaroo court in which I was not told what was being alleged against me and which had been prepared (before I was let into the room) by a highly prejudicial introduction by the president. I sued, and fortunately won a fair bit of compensation. But the result of the whole nightmare was to implant in me a phobia against academic environments generally which made it very difficult for me to function in subsequent posts. 15 years later, I still had great difficulty concentrating, writing coherently, and staying focused in class. I felt anxious and angry much of the time. I took time off to try to recover, which then added financial strains, and the whole thing put stresses on my marriage which ended in divorce. Then I had trouble getting back in the game. Finally I retired, with a small pension. I wish I could say that retirement has been relaxing and has helped me put it all behind me; perhaps some day that will happen. But in the meantime I am addicted to sleeping pills, on antidepressants, and I have had a heart attack. Yes, academia can be a very rough ride. .

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