Imagine someone in your office uses insults, anger, and threats to get what they want. Their nasty behavior is starting to take a psychological toll on everyone around them and your team's performance (and sanity) is suffering. What's the best way to fight back?
Ideally, this wouldn't be your problem to solve. HR or the higher ups would have long ago gotten rid of the jerk (or, even better, never hired him in the first place). But as we all know, these safeguards don't always work as they should, especially if your boss is conflict avoidant or the toxic employee happens to be a high performer.
So sometimes you have to go it alone. Doing that effectively depends on understanding what's really going on when the office jerk insults and intimates everyone in their path, according to a super helpful article from clinical psychologist and professor Dr. Mary Lamia in the UK Guardian recently.
Bullying is all about shame.
The first thing you have to understand is that bullying isn't about low self-esteem as many people believe. Instead, it's about deflecting shame.
"Those who behave like bullies tend to have high self-esteem and hubristic pride. They attack others to take away their shame - which allows them to remain unaware of their feelings," Lamia explains. "When shame threatens people who bully - for example, when they risk looking incompetent at work - they will attack others."
The sad thing is that, from the bully's perspective at least, this strategy is effective, at least in the short-term. They're usually completing unaware that what they're doing is avoiding feelings of shame by heaping them onto other people who are more likely to blame themselves when they experience trouble.
"Attacking others not only blots out the shame they are feeling, but it also stimulates the experience of power. Although bullies diminish others in an attempt to raise themselves up, they are not conscious of how bad they feel about themselves. Through their behavior, their own feelings of inadequacy remain hidden," writes Lamia. (As a side note: does this remind anyone else of someone we've seen on the public stage recently?)
Never sympathize with a bully.
If you understand what's really going on, Lamia insists, you'll be better able to respond effectively. The first step to doing so is giving up on any good-natured attempts to rationalize the jerk's behavior as a sign of their unhappiness and self-loathing. He or she is getting a charge out of others' misery and pretty much incapable of understanding, remorse, or reform.
Instead, team up and isolate your office tormentor until either your company gets its act together and fires the guy or he slinks off to inflict his nonsense on another office.
"The way to deal with bullies is to unite with your co-workers. Grouping against a bully will provide victims with support for their feelings, since victims of bullies are at risk of becoming isolated. Through joining together and discussing the bully's behavior, co-workers can contain the bully, who, with their behavior exposed, loses the power to terrorize - and faces the threat of isolation," Lamia concludes.