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What Is The Pathology of a Workplace Bully?

Updated: Feb 7

Workplace bullying is a common issue and can have a devastating impact on the victims. How can we respond to bullying to maintain our physical and emotional well being?

by Simon Perreira, Lighthouse Associate Elect

As the glass jar hit the floor and smashed into pieces, I distinctly remember feeling both sad and empty inside. I had been bullied at work for months and I felt that I didn’t have the energy to go to the office and face another day with my manager. You may be thinking it was an accident, right? I just dropped a jar, no big deal. That’s not the case. I had been bullied for so long and got so stressed that I wasn’t able to carry out normal daily tasks like making breakfast. I knew that I ought to clean up the mess, but I stood there in a daze unable to do anything. I was staying with my parents at the time and my Mum came into the kitchen, looked at me, looked at the floor and was very insistent that I wasn’t going to the office that day. Instead I booked a doctor’s appointment to start getting the help I needed. I was starting on a path out of my job and back towards health but it had come at a cost to my physical and mental wellbeing.

What Causes Someone to Become a Workplace Bully?

At the root of this behaviour is a deep seated narcissism. A bully wants to gain significance by breaking others down. They feel good about themselves by putting you down. It’s a deeply unhealthy behaviour. Some bullies didn’t get attention as a child and use bullying behaviour as a way to get attention. And sometimes they themselves have been bullied in their childhood and have not had the upbringing to know it’s not right to treat people that way. Physically, they may be an adult, but emotionally they are still a child. Psychologists call this being an old infant.

The Pathology of a Victim of Bullying

It may sound harsh to you, but we also need to consider the role of the victim in bullying. Hold on, you might be thinking…I’m the good guy here, I’m the victim. As someone who experienced workplace bullying in two jobs, I have lots of empathy for victims of bullying but in the “I’m the victim” response is a victim mentality. It’s a way of looking at the world that is negative and you see yourself as a weak, passive victim of other people and circumstances. This makes you a perfect target for the workplace bully. In the first position where I was bullied, I was a young man in my first full-time job. Throughout childhood, I’d always been the “nice guy” and this was encouraged at home and school and praised as an ideal. I entered the workplace with this nice guy persona and a high level of naivety. This made it easy for bullies to manipulate and attack me because I took everything at face value and with a strong desire to do well at my job I didn’t want to say or do anything that would cause a problem.

Ultimately, this desire to please everyone which was at the root of my behaviour (yes, I did want my bullying manager to like me and think I was doing a good job) didn’t help me at all as I was ruthlessly dismissed. In the first job I was bullied at, there was a massive atmosphere of uncertainty as I was working there during the financial crisis of 2008-2010. Like many companies at the time, my firm had to make redundancies but what made it worse and added to the atmosphere of uncertainty was the circumstances in which colleagues were made redundant. At this firm, the bad news was always delivered on a Thursday. The person being made redundant would be called to the boardroom late on Thursday afternoon and your manager and HR would be waiting to give you the news.

I remember how I felt when my phone rang one Thursday afternoon and I was called to the boardroom. When I was told I was being made redundant, I felt relief that the bullying was finally going to be over, anger that I’d had to go through this experience and fear for what the future would hold now I was unemployed. I was told to go back to my desk and leave immediately without saying anything to my colleagues. It was very difficult because in an open plan office everyone knew what was happening. One of my colleagues got very upset and started crying, which made the situation even more difficult, because I wanted to help her but I knew I had to leave quickly.

The Impact of Workplace Bullying on Companies

Workplace bullying also has an impact on the company the bully is working at. We spend so much of our lives at work, and research by Gettysburg College in the US shows that the average person will spend approximately 90,000 hours over their lifetime at work. This is the equivalent of about one third of an average person's lifespan!

Imagine what it would be like if you walked into your office tomorrow and everyone there was working towards the highest possible ideal of what a workplace ought to be. What would that highest ideal look like? For me, it would be an environment where the company values are clearly defined and everyone who works there has committed to them. Values such as love, care, empathy and courage. It would be an environment where the people working there are supported and encouraged to become the best person they can possibly be through being mentored and coached. The people working there are not seen as just employees, another number but as emerging leaders and are encouraged to embrace opportunities to develop their leadership capacity. It is a place where warm, deep and loving relationships are built. Instead of going home tired, stressed and anxious, you take this warmth and loving care back to your family and loved ones. Now compare that to how most people feel on their commute home or when their alarm clocks go off in the morning!

I remember in both the jobs where I was bullied that my bullies were unquestionably supported by HR who ought to have been neutral, looked at the facts and help us come to a fair resolution. I had plenty of evidence of the bullying that had occured as I had noted down dates, times, what had happened, what had been said. It was dismissed without any discussion or investigation. Instead, I was made out to be the problem. Despite working diligently, I was told my performance was not up to standard and I was put on a system of performance reviews. This was a completely unbalanced process where despite doing everything I was asked to do as part of the process, I was told at fortnightly meetings that my performance was still not acceptable. When I asked for specific examples and areas for improvement, I got vague replies. I felt trapped in a cycle of uncertainty, not knowing if at some point HR would decide I hadn’t done enough and dismiss me. This took a massive toll on my mental health and I developed a severe and deep depression. Naturally, this affected my performance and led to more complaints and undermining from my manager. Eventually, I reached the low point described at the start of this post where I couldn’t handle simple daily tasks.

What is The Highest Ideal Possible for The Workplace?

Maybe you’re sitting there thinking that all sounds like a pipedream, a fantasy? It could never happen? I feel that not only can this happen but it MUST happen because the cost of not working in environments like this is having a devastating impact on people’s lives. It allows for an environment where bullies can thrive and even be encouraged.

I started my first full-time job with an enthusiastic attitude, a willingness to learn as much as possible, a strong work ethic, a desire to help people and a high level of creativity from my background as a musician that I was keen to utilise in the workplace. I feel sad that I was unable to realise my potential at that job. The enthusiasm and good intentions were crushed by the dark pathology of the bullies. There are practical costs to a company in terms of lost skills and money spent on recruiting a replacement when the victim leaves. I brought specialist skills in IT systems to my corporate jobs and the fact that I had to leave both jobs meant the company lost my skills as well.

The problem doesn’t go away when a victim of bullying leaves. The bully has a narcissistic pathology that thrives on getting significance from victimising others. They just find a new victim. There are reputational costs for the company. If the bullying persists with multiple victims over a period of time, then that company will gain a reputation as being a bad place to work. Who would knowingly want to work for a company that employs bullies and allows them to thrive? Not anyone with a healthy pathology.

Many people spend their lives waiting for the weekend when they can be free of the office for two days. They end up living a life of quiet desperation. Surely we can aspire to make workplaces better than this? A place where people feel valued and can develop as human beings and realise their full potential?

Business Against Trolling - A Response to Workplace Bullying

What can you do if you are experiencing bullying in your workplace? Each situation is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. At Lighthouse Global, we work with people on an individual basis. Looking back at my experiences, I lacked a solid support network and I would have definitely benefited from having a mentor to guide me through these situations.

Later in my corporate career, working with my mentors, Tom and Warren, I had the support I needed to start standing up for myself in the workplace. This had a massive impact on my job performance and I went from being unnoticed in the corner of the office to increasing my responsibilities, leading meetings with senior colleagues, being able to hold colleagues accountable and making the business case for and receiving a salary increase. I learnt a lot about developing character and leadership through these experiences and I want to use them to help others reach their goals for their lives. In this video, Jordan Peterson speaks about how to handle toxic work environments - that I would have loved to have known when I was struggling.

Suffering from workplace bullying is a stressful experience and in these circumstances it is easy to fall into bad practices in terms of your wellbeing. I know I did. Emotional challenges require emotional solutions. I ruminated on my work situation constantly and it only made me feel more anxious and helpless. There are practical actions you can take to alleviate the symptoms of stress such as caring for yourself physically, like eating a healthy, nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and mentally and emotionally, like making time to do activities and hobbies that you enjoy. However, these actions are not enough on their own and to heal from emotional stress you need to understand the underlying factors that cause emotional pain. It is a journey of discovery and it can help to have a mentor or coach to support and guide you through this process.

Lighthouse Global has started a campaign called Business Against Trolls because we believe that workplace bullies need to be held accountable and that businesses need to be able to identify bullies before they are employed and spread their poison throughout the organisation at great cost of time, money and effort.

You can find out more about Business Against Trolls here.

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